Justice cautions SPS

Published 10:13 pm Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The U.S. Department of Justice has intervened in efforts by school district officials to draft an attendance zone for a new elementary school in the city’s southwest, asking them to develop new plans to “further desegregation.”

School Board members were scheduled to vote on two rezoning plans at Thursday’s monthly meeting, but tabled the matter until April after discussing the federal government’s concerns in closed meeting.

In a letter to School Board Attorney Wendell M. Waller on March 6, department attorney Andrea E. Hamilton wrote, “We cannot agree to either plan and request that the Board develop alternative rezoning plans that would further desegregation.”

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Hamilton cited previous court cases against Nansemond County School Board, in the early 1970s, before the county and city merged, in which the board was found to have discriminated against black teachers and students.

“The Board has a continuing obligation to comply in good faith with the desegregation order and to eliminate the vestiges of past discrimination,” Hamilton wrote, “ … ensuring that new school construction and rezoning efforts further desegregation and do not perpetuate or recreate racially identifiable schools.”

District Superintendent Deran Whitney said he was “a little surprised” by the department’s interjection, given that the majority of the proposed student population of Pioneer Elementary School, due to open in the fall to replace the already-shuttered Robertson Elementary School and Southwestern Elementary School, would transfer from Southwestern Elementary, where the majority of students are white.

“But I certainly understand the rationale,” he added.

The two rezoning plans, Hamilton wrote, would both make Pioneer Elementary a “racially identifiable white school,” while increasing segregation at existing schools from which it would draw, including Kilby Shores, Elephant’s Fork and Booker T. Washington.

“Neither rezoning plan furthers desegregation, and parts of both plans increase segregation,” Hamilton wrote.

The U.S. asks the board to consider instead “reassigning different clusters of students” to Pioneer, in addition to the Southwestern students. About 40 students, more than half black, should be reassigned to Pioneer from the western side of the Booker T. Washington zone, it says.

It asks ask the board to adopt a voluntary majority-to-minority transfer program, under which students in the majority racial group of a particular school could change schools to where they would be in the minority, with the district footing transportation costs and ensuring space is available at the receiving school.

The U.S. modified its request after a March 11 conference call with district officials. In another letter to Waller, Hamilton proposed that 16 students living in the southern section of the Booker T. Washington attendance zone and who previously attended Robertson — 10 of whom are black — be reassigned to Pioneer, in modification of the district’s second proposal. Also, Hamilton wrote, students would no longer be reassigned from Kilby Shores and Elephant’s Fork.

And, after district officials expressed concerns regarding feasibility and transportation costs, she wrote that the transfer program could be limited to students in the majority at their current school who would be in the minority by transferring to Pioneer, Elephant’s Fork, Booker T. Washington and Mack Benn Jr. elementary schools.

“Thus, black students at (Booker T.) Washington, Elephant’s Fork and Mack Benn would have the option to transfer to Pioneer,” she wrote.

At last week’s board meeting, only Enoch Copeland voted against tabling the matter for a month — apparently in protest.

“My position is, when you start allowing other people to decide what’s going to be taking place, it can cause a lot of disturbance,” he said.

After the meeting, Whitney said the transfer program would be “a challenge for us to handle,” given the requirement to provide transportation and Suffolk’s physical expansiveness.

He said he interpreted the federal government’s input as “direction and guidance that’s obviously well-received, because we would hate” for any court order due to result, adding that district officials would work on a mutually agreeable plan.

According to a judgment by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, on May 27, 1970, the U.S. filed for “the total desegregation of the schools and faculties in the district controlled by the Board,” because it was dissatisfied with the degree of desegregation in the district under a freedom-of-choice plan.

Allowing students to choose which school to attend, regardless of race, school boards had implemented freedom-of-choice plans in response to 1954’s Brown V. Board of Education, a U.S. Supreme Court case originally filed in Topeka, Kansas by 13 parents calling for the school district to reverse its policy of racial segregation.

The district subsequently submitted a desegregation plan, which the District Court ordered to be implemented for the 1970-1971 school year.

Then, on June 1, 1970, the U.S. filed another motion, for supplemental relief, “alleging that the board’s plan had failed to disestablish the dual school system which had existed for many years,” according to the appeals court judgment.

The U.S. further alleged that the board had instituted a policy that had reduced the number of black teachers, while the board had “refused to demonstrate that its actions were not racially discriminatory.”

By the end of the new policy’s first year — 1970-1971 — 25 teachers were not offered new contracts, and 21 of those were black. The faculty went from 59-percent to 52-percent black by 1972, and the policy had an even greater impact on the proportion of blacks hired as new teachers.

Then, in a lawsuit filed on Aug. 20, 1971, 13 black teachers alleged that the board had been racially discriminatory.

“The trial court found that ‘there was no racial motivation involved in any decision of the school board,’” although it also found that this did not settle the case, acknowledging “two situations involving de facto discrimination,” according to the appeals court judgment.

The appeals court ultimately ruled that the board applied the new policy in a discriminatory manner, ordering the reinstatement, with back pay, of certain terminated teachers, and directed the District Court to re-examine “the facts surrounding the dismissal of certain teachers,” placing responsibility on the School Board to prove the dismissals were not linked to discrimination.