The St. Martin Parish School Board could be required to seek approval from a federal judge for any major renovation, maintenance or construction projects that are questioned in the school system’s recently revived desegregation case.
The School Board agreed last month to give the Justice Department and attorneys with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund notice of all new projects valued at $150,000 or more.
Court approval would be needed to move forward if either party is opposed to a project and a compromise can’t be reached.
The agreement does not affect any projects the board already has approved, said attorney Pam Dill, who is representing the School Board in the desegregation case.
“It will not apply to any project that is in progress,” she said.
Dill also said the impact of the agreement is expected to be minimal because no major projects are planned in the near future.
Questions of access by minorities to quality facilities are central in desegregation cases, and school systems wrestling with desegregation lawsuits generally submit to court oversight over money spent on new schools or improvements to existing schools.
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 five years ago to revive the case, arguing it had never been officially resolved and that the school system should still be under federal oversight.
The litigation is just now gaining momentum after years of back-and-forth arguments about whether the case should be open or closed.
U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Foote ruled in 2012 that the case remains open, not for any specific desegregation problems but because of 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 last year upheld Foote’s earlier ruling.
The focus of the case now shifts to whether the school system meets legal desegregation guidelines on such issues as the racial balance of students and staff, and whether minorities have equal access to facilities, transportation options and recreational opportunities, among other things.
A court hearing on those issues is set for January 2016.
Dill said she is confident the judge will find St. Martin Parish in compliance.
“I really think this is more of a ritual we have to go through for the court,” she said.
Follow Richard Burgess on Twitter, @rbb100.