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VOL. 123 | NO. 10 | Tuesday, January 15, 2008

School Overcrowding Collides With Desegregation Decision, Appeals

By Bill Dries

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Shelby County Schools officials want to build two new schools - a middle school and an elementary school in the Arlington-Lakeland area and Southeast Shelby County - and open them in time for the 2009-2010 school year.

The school system is seeking permission from U.S. District Judge Bernice Donald as it appeals Donald's decision last year to move the system toward an aggressive racial desegregation plan. The motion filed this month has the agreement of all of the other parties in the 1963 case of Robinson v. Shelby County Board of Education. The case governs desegregation efforts in the school system as well as decisions about where schools are built and the attendance zones for those schools.

"Despite the fact that we are certainly in conflict with Judge Donald, we absolutely had to move forward with this request ... to acquire the property and begin to build the schools," said county school board chairman David Pickler.

Too much fat

The two new schools have been in the works for five years, and in the interim, the school system has leased and converted an empty Schnucks grocery store at Riverdale and Holmes roads. For three years it has served as a temporary school as Highland Oaks Elementary was expanded. The lease is up in the fall.

The request for permission to start site work immediately on the two schools comes as Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton and Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton Jr. are pushing for a more centralized system of funding and managing construction projects for the Memphis city and Shelby County school systems. That move is separate from the call by both mayors for government consolidation.

In separate interviews and speeches this month, Herenton and Wharton have said in so many words that Memphis has too many schools.

Race against race

Pickler argued that the problem of too many schools won't be solved until local leaders can solve the problem of a continual shift of some part of the county's population as a reaction to decisions from City Hall and the county building - notably annexations.

"There is no question that we have significant pockets, primarily within Memphis ... where schools are underutilized. The reality is that we have not experienced real growth in Shelby County for several years," Pickler said. "What we will continue to experience is migration. As people have been voting with their feet and moving into certain areas of the county, the county has had to take the responsibility of meeting the ever-growing need. It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the most efficient way to design for school construction or for taxpayer efficiency or any other way."

Donald revived the 45-year-old desegregation case in July when she rejected a move by all sides in the case to close it and declare the county school system a unitary school system.

"The County School system is in some respects more racially polarized than in the distant past," Donald wrote in her ruling.

She ordered the appointment of a special master to oversee the formulation of a new desegregation plan. That plan, according to her ruling, has the goal of maintaining a racial balance in each county school that is within 15 percentage points of the school system's overall racial makeup. The goal applies not only to the student population but also the faculties at those schools.

The racial makeup of the school system is currently 34 percent black and 66 percent white or other races.

'Massive rezonings'

After her ruling, Donald granted a motion allowing the school system to go ahead with previously approved attendance zone changes for the school year now under way.

Pickler said if the same exception isn't made for the two new schools, there could be more changes in the attendance zones.

"In the event that Judge Donald does not approve the sites within the next three weeks, then as we go into the 2009 school year the tremendous degree of overcrowding that we're projecting in that area will require massive rezonings.

The school system has contingency contracts on the land for both schools.

Still awaiting a ruling by Donald is a motion filed by the school system in September to stay the appointment of the special master at least until an appeal to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals is decided.

In the motion, the school system outlines its case on appeal, which is that Donald's unexpected ruling denied "a basic due process opportunity of being notified that the court was privately contemplating these actions.

"The Court has, apparently, concluded that the virtual absence of contested issues, complaints and litigation for this three-and-a-half decades requires that the Court declare a 'new starting point' in this 44-year-old litigation, rather than terminating this now unnecessary litigation."

The motion also attacks the "unarticulated principle that children will feel isolated if they are not educated by teachers of their own race."

The motion filed by attorneys Richard and Robin J. Winchester said the idea is without merit and "serves to denigrate the personal student/teacher relationship which exists between white students and their black teachers and black students and their white teachers."

PROPERTY SALES 56 94 12,852
MORTGAGES 23 50 8,053
BUILDING PERMITS 285 422 30,356
BANKRUPTCIES 23 67 6,131