Charlie Crist vowed to fight for five failing schools in the St. Petersburg area if voters send him to Congress next week, but many in the black community say Crist has shrugged off some of the worst schools in Florida throughout his entire 2016 congressional campaign.
On Wednesday Crist made an appearance at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg with Georgia Congressman John Lewis to talk about civil rights. After 45 minutes of civil rights talks -- mostly by Lewis -- it was Crist’s turn to make his pitch to the crowd of about 150.
“I’ve changed parties, but I haven’t changed my heart,” he told the room. “[I want] to be able to fight to make sure that we have a good education for our children, especially in south St. Pete with those five elementary schools that are struggling.”
Crist, Florida's last elected education commissioner, was referring to the five “failure factories,” elementary schools in predominantly black South St. Petersburg which record some of the highest failing rates in the state. Last year the Tampa Bay Times broke a lengthy investigative story that erupted in a geyser of criticism over district leaders making and breaking promises to fix some of the most segregated schools, where many children can't read or do simple math.
District officials in Pinellas County pleaded ignorance to abandoning projects to help the schools improve while residents begged for change.
In an ironic twist, those failing schools happened to be at the center of a question for a scheduled debate two weeks ago at the St. Petersburg NAACP between Crist and his Republican challenger, U.S. Rep. David Jolly -- a debate to which Crist never showed up.
The NAACP says Crist’s remarks about rising to the cause to help the schools ring hollow considering he hasn’t actually engaged with the South St. Pete community on the issue, nor has he tried to work with them toward a solution.
“It’s almost comical,” St. Petersburg NAACP president Maria Scruggs told Sunshine State News.
Earlier this year, plaintiffs in a 50-year-old lawsuit sought to reopen their federal desegregation case against Pinellas County to lift the schools out of their peril.
“This issue of the failing schools has been brought to the forefront [of the community] since 2015, and as one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the district, I have yet to be approached by Gov. Crist as it’s related to any kind of solution," said Scruggs.
Scruggs said Crist showed up to education forums, talked the talk, snapped photos with fans, then bounced. When it came to actually reaching out to see what could be done to help the failing schools, she said Crist has been a dud.
“I think it would have to be a real discussion he would have to have with the plaintiffs,” she explained. "I know he has not had that discussion with the NAACP ... this has been front-page news for the African-American community for a long time and he has not seen fit to engage either of the plaintiffs.”
Crist beamed at the crowd Wednesday, calling the opportunity to serve them in Washington an “unbelievable privilege.” For people like Scruggs, though, Crist already had the opportunity -- though he apparently never saw it as a privilege -- to help the community in its most desperate hour. He plain hasn't stepped up to the plate, she said.
Education is an issue the NAACP doesn’t take lightly. In Pinellas County, it’s a top priority for the local chapter -- and the failure factories are a big reason why.
Scruggs said she found Wednesday’s comment strange, given the lack of history Crist has had with the group. And to her, the comment was wholly transparent.
“This is the political pandering that really bothers me when it comes to the African-American community,” she told SSN.
The atmosphere was perfect for Crist’s comment on Wednesday when he could hand-select people whose questions he would answer.
The vibe apparently was not right for him in a smaller venue two weeks ago, where the spotlight would have been entirely on him, forcing him to answer questions about how to remedy a struggling community rather than smile for a selfie while the camera flashed.
Scruggs said she tried to invite Crist to the debate several times, but he always left her hanging. When she saw him at a Pinellas County Urban League gathering, she asked him about the invitation.
“He said he would get back to me and he never did,” she said.
Scruggs said Jolly has been better with the NAACP. He’s attempted to attack the issue head-on. She recalled a time when she reached out to local leaders, asking them to be a part of discussions to fix the broken education system.
Jolly was the only one to respond.
“We have been able to engage him one-on-one with issues and that’s the key thing,” she said. “[There] is no political fix or poster child ... nothing someone will do [to fix] something like a magic wand.”
But Scruggs said it was at least something.
If Crist does walk away with a win next week, the NAACP is prepared to make a full-court press and hold him accountable on the issues, same as they’d do for anybody else.
“He would not be immune from that,” she explained. “I would probably be more assertive in that I don’t think he’s made himself available to understand the issues in any depth.”
But Scruggs said Crist needs to reach out of his comfort zone -- making community appearances and taking photos as a local celebrity -- to really make a difference in a community that needs it the most.
“If he is not responsive, then we will do what we need to do as a branch to continue to hold him accountable."