School Board hopes to end desegregation suit _lowres

Advocate staff file photo by LESLIE WESTBROOK -- Catahoula Elementary School is pictured Dec. 11, 2015, in Catahoula, La.

A proposal by the St. Martin Parish School Board aimed at closing a decades-old desegregation lawsuit would affect students in St. Martinville, Catahoula and a small section of the Parks school attendance zones, according to the board’s attorney, Pam Dill.

The board approved the proposal Monday as a way to keep the doors of Catahoula Elementary open after rejecting options offered by attorneys for the U.S. Justice Department and NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Those options included either closing Catahoula or creating a preschool through first grade-only campus to add more diversity to the parish’s schools.

The school district assumed the desegregation suit, filed in 1965, had been closed in 1974. But the case was resurrected a few years ago after a review of desegregation cases across the country that had never officially been closed.

Attorneys for the Justice Department and NAACP argued that the case should remain open and in court filings have singled out Catahoula Elementary because of its majority-white student population. The school has 216 white students, or nearly 92 percent, while 16 students, or nearly 7 percent, are black, based on Oct. 1 enrollment figures.

After rejecting options opposing counsel offered to address their concerns about racial balance in the district, the School Board met in special session on Monday to approve another proposal. It proposed to change the existing pre-K through eighth-grade configuration at Catahoula Elementary to a pre-K through fifth-grade school with older Catahoula students going to St. Martinville schools.

Dill offered more details about the new proposal late Tuesday.

Here’s a grade-level breakdown of the proposal’s impact on students:

GRADES PRE-K THROUGH FIRST All students currently residing in the St. Martinville zone would attend the Early Learning Center for grades pre-K through first grade. All students who live in the modified attendance zone (part of the southern Parks zone and the current Catahoula zone) would attend Catahoula Elementary.

GRADES SECOND THROUGH FIFTH: Catahoula Elementary would serve grades second through fifth from a modified attendance zone that would incorporate an area of the current St. Martinville zone and result in 30 to 40 additional students attending Catahoula.

The move is projected to change Catahoula’s student population from 7 percent black and 92 percent white to 20 percent black and 79 percent white.

GRADES SIXTH THROUGH EIGHTH: All students in the modified Catahoula zone in grades sixth through eighth would attend St. Martinville Junior High. That move is expected to change St. Martinville Junior High’s population from 68 percent black and 26 percent white to 59 percent black and 36 percent white.

GRADES NINTH THROUGH 12TH: All students in the modified Catahoula zone in grades ninth through 12th would continue to attend St. Martinville Senior High.

As part of the proposal, the board would also promote majority-to-minority transfers by providing transportation to students who want to attend a school where they would be identified as a minority.

A hearing on student assignment in federal court is planned for Jan. 19 and a trial is planned for late January. However, Dill said, it’s possible the School Board may be able to avoid a courtroom, if Justice Department and NAACP lawyers and the judge agree to the new proposal.

“If those steps occur, no hearing on the issue of student assignment would be held in January unless the Court orders otherwise,” Dill said in an email.

She stressed that the proposal approved by the board is a “working proposal.”

“We urge the public to understand that this is only a working proposal that complies with the Board’s obligation under federal law to offer a student assignment plan that is both practicable and designed to eliminate all vestiges of the former segregated system,” she said.

Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.