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VOL. 122 | NO. 142 | Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Appeal Against Desegregation Case Is Brewing

By Bill Dries

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New County Schools Desegregation Terms & Goals:
Appointment of a neutral special master agreed to by all sides within 30 days.
Court hearing in 60 days for formal appointment of new master.
The master to report to the court annually.
Goal in student and teacher assignments in each school is the same racial percentages the system has as a whole, within 15 percentage points. The current racial composition is 66 percent white/34 percent black.
Full compliance by October 2012 and three more years of court-ordered monitoring to follow that.

Shelby County Board of Education members have some decisions to make in the wake of last week's ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Bernice Donald.

And Donald has some questions to answer. Those answers will better define options - most of which promise to change county schools profoundly if the ruling stands.

"We have been working with this federal judge for many years," said school board chairman David Pickler. "At no point did she ever give any indication of the issues that she raised (in the ruling). ... We are very deeply concerned about the impact that this ruling would have not only on the school system, but on the county as a whole."

Donald ruled late last week against a motion by all of the parties in the county schools desegregation case, Robinson v. Shelby County Board of Education, seeking to end the 44-year old case.

She ended court monitoring of transportation, facilities and administrative staffing. But she continued the court order governing student attendance zones and teacher assignments.

Narrow error margin

The central part of the ruling is Donald's requirement of making each of the county's 46 schools meet the district's overall racial balance of 66 percent white students and 34 percent black or other racial designation - within 15 percentage points.

The board is scheduled to meet Thursday to hear from its attorney. Pickler said he supports and will "strongly recommend" an appeal of the ruling to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.

Donald was critical of the school system in her 62-page written ruling. She was also critical of the court for drifting in recent years from the basic mission of enforcing the goal of racial desegregation.

Richard Fields, the attorney for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, predicted a "tumultuous next couple of weeks."

"We've got to have a lot of direction from her because based upon the last couple of years, we thought everything was going fine," Fields said. "Her concerns are certainly valid. I just wonder how they can be remedied. We've got some real technical questions that have nothing to do with race."

The race against race

Donald specifically cited the racial makeup of the new Southwind High School, which is to open Aug. 13 with the new school year. The school will be 88 percent black under the controversial attendance zone for the school drawn and approved by the board earlier this year.

The plan still hasn't been approved by the court.

"As of the hearing Monday (July 23), she requested additional information that we have provided to her," Pickler said. "We are most concerned about both the nature of her ruling and the fact that she has not yet given approval for the attendance zone that will effectively allow us to open schools this year.

The shift of students to fill the new high school involved changing student assignments at five of the county's seven other high schools. It drew intense opposition from parents of students at Collierville and Germantown high schools. The board approved the shift without any amendments. School officials said it affected the smallest number of students.

Fields said key to any immediate decisions is knowing when Southwind High, built with a share of city funding, and the surrounding area might be annexed into the city of Memphis.

"If Southwind goes into the city, what are we going to do? What are we going to do about the teacher ratio too? Does that mean we fire black teachers? Have we got too many black teachers, then? That's not what (Donald) wants," Fields said. "Should the county void their agreement (with the city school system) based on the court's ruling? Should they make Southwind a city school tomorrow?"

Fields and Pickler each said a pairing and clustering of schools plan similar to 1970s-style urban busing is the only realistic option to carry out the terms of Donald's ruling.

"I cannot, at this point, see any solution to resolving the racial balancing that Judge Donald has required in her ruling that could be accomplished in any other way than through busing," Pickler said. "And that could have the impact of destroying the concept of neighborhood schools that we've worked so hard to create for the past 40 years."

Murky waters      

Fields said he expects Donald's ruling and a plan to come later from a special master will draw opposition from black parents of county school students, especially those who will be able to walk to Southwind High.

"These are black kids, middle class black kids," Fields said. "I think we are going to hear from a lot of black parents. What are we going to do? Are we going to bus any black kids from Collierville to Southwind? If we do it by zones, we are going to scoop up some black kids. I don't think that's what she wants."

Any discussion of busing in the county school system comes with a different context than the busing of the early 1970s in the Memphis city school system.

County schools had been in the business of transporting students by bus even when schools were racially segregated by law. It's been a feature of county school culture for decades.

The yellow buses city schools students boarded starting in 1973 were the symbol of a controversial policy that sparked white flight into both private schools and county schools. During the most public phase of opposition, busing critics in Frayser buried one of the buses. Yards in white neighborhoods sprouted a bumper crop of yellow signs reading "Happiness Is A Neighborhood School."

"I hope we're beyond that," said Fields. "But you have to get direction from the court. No matter what we thought was correct, the court has the final say so."

Plan Z, as the 1973 Memphis City School system court-ordered busing plan was called, paired predominantly white schools with predominantly black schools and swapped students between them. At least that was the plan.

At one point, new county schools planned to handle the movement of city schools students and their families out of the city were opposed by the plaintiffs in the Robinson case. But the opposition was dropped in exchange for a role in drawing the attendance zones for those and future schools.

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