A federal judge on Tuesday seemed reluctant to sign off on a deal to help end the St. Martin Parish School Board’s decades-old desegregation case without the forced closure of a school in the rural community of Catahoula.
The School Board, the Justice Department and attorneys for residents challenging racial imbalance in parish schools filed a proposed agreement last week carving out new attendance zones for schools in Catahoula, St. Martinville, Breaux Bridge and Parks.
But U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Foote wondered aloud more than once during a Tuesday court hearing whether simply closing the predominantly white school in Catahoula might be the easiest solution.
The judge made no decision Tuesday. Whatever changes are approved could be implemented beginning next school year.
The School Board had already discussed and rejected a proposal to close Catahoula Elementary, which now serves pre-K through eighth grades.
The agreement last week was crafted as an alternative in hopes of keeping the school open, but many Catahoula residents would rather no change at all.
“I would like to see the judge leave things the way they are. It’s been that way for 50 years and nothing is wrong with it,” said School Board member Russel Foti, who represents the Catahoula area and stood outside the courthouse Tuesday morning with a group of about 20 Catahoula residents, some wearing shirts that read “Save Catahoula.”
A key sticking point in the parish’s desegregation case is that several schools have a racial balance out of kilter with the student population of the parish as a whole, which is 46 percent black.
The desegregation plan focuses on communities where schools have some of the widest gaps: Breaux Bridge and St. Martinville, which are majority black, and Catahoula and Parks, which are majority white.
Catahoula Elementary is the most problematic.
Its student population is 92 percent white, which mirrors the demographics of the small fishing community on the edge of the Atchafalaya Basin but is an obvious red flag under the legal guidelines used in school desegregation cases.
The proposed desegregation plan would not impact pre-K through first grades in Catahoula.
Some students from the St. Martinville area would attend Catahoula Elementary in second through fifth grades, and students in Catahoula would shift to St. Martinville Junior High for sixth through eighth grades. No change would be made for ninth through 12th grades, because there is no high school in Catahoula and students from there already attend other high schools.
In the Parks area, some students in pre-K through eighth grades would be reassigned to Breaux Bridge Primary, Breaux Bridge Elementary and Breaux Bridge Junior High.
Much of the discussion at Tuesday’s hearing focused on Catahoula Elementary, and Foote was clearly interested in at least exploring the idea of shuttering the school and busing the children elsewhere in the parish.
“What is the downside of closing the Catahoula school?” the judge asked in an exercise in which she said she was playing the devil’s advocate.
At another point, the judge asked: “Do you think this is the best we can do?”
Foote said the proposed plan does not seem to have a significant impact on the racial balance at all the schools involved and would do nothing to desegregate pre-K through first grades in Catahoula or St. Martinville.
Mike Hefner, a local demographer hired by the School Board to help draw new attendance zones, and Leonard B. Stevens, a nationally recognized desegregation expert brought in by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, both spoke in favor of the plan.
They said busing younger schoolchildren was not an ideal solution and that a compromise plan might be more easily achieved because there would be less resistance by parents and more buy-in from the School Board.
The proposed shifts in attendance zones might not have a major impact on the racial balance of every school touched by the plan, Stevens acknowledged, but a new focus on encouraging so-called majority-to-minority transfers could further change the numbers.
Majority-to-minority transfers allow students in the majority race at their school to transfer out of their attendance zone to a school where they would be in the minority race, thus improving the overall racial balance at both schools.
Under the desegregation proposal, those transfers would be encouraged through free transportation for students to their new school and by enhanced marketing and recruitment efforts.
St. Martin Parish officials had for years thought the desegregation case — originally filed in 1965 — was closed in 1974.
But the Justice Department and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund began pushing about six years ago to revive the litigation, arguing it had never been officially resolved and that the school system should still be under federal oversight.
Foote ruled in 2012 that the case remains open, citing ambiguities in the 1974 court ruling the School Board thought had closed the case.
The school system appealed that decision to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which in 2014 year upheld Foote’s earlier ruling.