Talks to re-integrate county schools could take ‘hard conversation’

Wilson Barnes waits his turn to speak at last week’s Leon County School Board meeting.
Photo by St. Clair Murraine


 By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook staff writer

Members of the Leon County School Board and Superintendent Rocky Hanna want to bring diversity back to the district, but how to do it could be a challenge.
They agreed that finding a fix has to begin with a dialog.

“It’s going to be a hard conversation,” said Joy Bowen, who chairs the board.

Finding a way to re-integrate the county’s schools became a hot topic for the board at last week’s meeting, following a release of a study that lists Tallahassee as one of five of the most segregated districts in Florida. The study was conducted by FSU’s LeRoy Collins Institute.

NAACP representative Wilson Barnes weighed in on the issue in the closing minutes of the meeting. He said the NAACP is willing to help the board and Hanna work toward ending segregation in the population of students.

Barnes called the problem “institutional racism.”

“It’s an issue that we’ve got to get our arms around,” Barnes said. “We could tiptoe around it under the guise of (school) choice but when it comes to choice, make sure you balance it with equality.”

According to the study, segregated schools in Florida go back a little more than two decades. At that time, court orders that led to the integration of schools were lifted.

School choice, which allows parents to take their children to any school, also is a factor, said Hanna. He also suggested that the flight of White students to schools that offer top-notch programs is a contributing factor.

There also is a consensus that socioeconomic standards figure into creating re-segregation in the district’s schools.

“I don’t think it’s an easy conversation for us to have,” Hanna said. “We have all seen it (but) we don’t say anything about it. Now this (Collins) report has come out and thrown all this in our faces and saying, ‘ok, here it is; what (are) you going to do about it.

“How we bring diversity back to our schools; that’s a million-dollar question.”

When board chair, Joy Bowen, asked Hanna how the problem could be fixed, he said he alone can’t bring integration back.

“It’s going to take the superintendent and the board collectively together,” he said. “We have some very smart people. They can all help us.”
So can the NAACP, Barnes said, adding that it matters where schools are built.

“Let’s think outside of the box how we draw the line when it comes to schools,” he said. “There’s an equality issue. We need to roll up our sleeves and talk about how we change this ship so that it goes another way.”

Leon and Lincoln’s enrollment are the only ones of the district’s six high schools that are close to the county’s racial makeup. White students account for only 45 percent of public school students in the county which has a White population of more than 60 percent.


Earlier in the meeting, the board spent more than 25 minutes discussing the possibility of new high schools on the northeast and south side of Tallahassee. Both suggestions have the same problem of funding, said Hanna.

However, he seemingly is committed to renovations at Rickards High School despite board members demonstrating interest in a new high school on the south side.

Hanna harkened back to a renovation concept that he said vastly improved Lincoln High School several years ago.

“I feel like we can accomplish the same thing at James S. Rickards High School,” he said.

District 3 board member Maggie Lewis-Butler apparently wasn’t convinced.

“I hope we don’t take millions and millions of dollars for a band-aid,” she said. “This (renovating Rickards) is not going to help this at all. We need to have some expertise to look at the overall structure and see what we are going to need there; not just fixing a wing or fixing one bathroom. We have to look at the whole picture.”