BREAUX BRIDGE — The fate of Catahoula Elementary likely will be decided in a federal courtroom after the St. Martin Parish School Board rejected a proposal that would bring it a step closer to achieving unitary status and settling a nearly 51-year-old desegregation lawsuit.
In a special meeting Monday, the School Board rejected a proposal to close Catahoula Elementary School or send students in grades two through eight who now attend the school to St. Martinville schools as part of a consent order negotiated with opposing counsel.
The 5-4 vote came after a 20-minute meeting in executive session with board attorneys, who said the rejection of the proposals means the case will go to trial in 30 days. Attorney Bob Hammonds also warned that Justice Department attorneys had also indicated that they would not push for changes across the school district if Catahoula Elementary were addressed by the board.
Voting in favor of keeping the school open were Steve Fuselier, Russel Foti, Burton Dupuis, Richard Potier and Mark Hebert.
Voting against the suggestion was Aaron Flegeance, Floyd Knott, James Blanchard and Wanda Vital. Board member Frederic Stelly was absent.
Ninety-two percent of the rural school’s students are white, and Hammonds, the attorney for the board, said prior to the vote that Justice Department attorneys targeted Catahoula Elementary because the school was segregated by law when the lawsuit was filed.
Hammonds said that in a recent meeting with Justice Department attorneys, the first words out of their mouths were: “Catahoula Elementary.”
Hammonds was being kind, his fellow attorney, Pam Dill, later told the crowd. “Their first words were: Catahoula’s going to be closed,” she said.
Acceptance of the proposal would have brought the school system closer to ending its 1965 desegregation lawsuit and achieving unitary status — which would free the system from federal oversight.
Before the board’s decision Monday, Principal Annette Baudoin and a handful of parents, speaking in room filled with about 100 people, appealed to the board to fight for the school.
Baudoin has been principal at the school for the past 12 years and said the school has never turned away any child zoned to attend the school.
“The doors of Catahoula Elementary should not be closed just because of the makeup of this community,” she said.
Catahoula is a primarily white community, and the school shouldn’t be penalized for that, said parent Jamie Cormier.
The Catahoula area’s former board member, Jackie Theriot, told the board that if the school is closed, parents won’t send their kids to St. Martinville.
“What’s going to happen if you shut down this school? You’re going to have the people of Catahoula going to private school, religious school or home school. They’re not going to go to St. Martinville,” Theriot said.
The school system had considered the desegregation lawsuit settled since 1974, but five years ago, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Justice Department questioned whether the matter was resolved and argued the school system should still be under federal oversight. After judicial review, it was determined the case was still open.
The school system has achieved unitary status in the area of extracurricular activities, proving that all students have equal access to school activities.
However, the school system’s plans for facilities, faculty assignment, staff assignment and transportation are pending court approval, while its plan for student assignments was considered by the School Board on Monday night.
As of Oct. 1, Catahoula Elementary enrolled 236 students in grades pre-K through eight. The majority — 216 students, or nearly 92 percent — are white, while 16 students, or nearly 7 percent, are black.
Stephensville Elementary also has a small percentage of black students, but because the school is in Lower St. Martin Parish and an hour away from St. Martinville, “the law says if you’re geographically isolated, then there’s nothing practical that you can do,” Dill said.
The board considered one other alternative: Creating a preschool through first grade school at Catahoula with students in grades two through eight attending St. Martinville schools. This plan would enable younger students to continue to attend their community school, Dill said.
Justice Department attorneys rejected a proposal to create a preschool through second grade school at Catahoula with other students attending St. Martinville schools.
Dill said that rejection “is a signal that they mean business. If we go to trial, they’re going to close Catahoula, or that’s going to be their goal.”
Hammonds said that if the board accepted one of the options, opposing counsel has assured that they would not require any other zone changes in the school district.
Only about 50 students would remain on the campus, if it’s a preschool through first grade school at an estimated cost of about $200,000, Hammonds said.
Theriot told the board it appears the proposal only offers one option — not two — and said the school district is a victim of an old law.
“You’re not going to operate a campus with 50 kids,” Theriot said. “It’s a business decision you have to make. Proposal No. 2 is shut down Catahoula, too.”
Before the board opened the meeting to public comment, School Board member Russel Foti, who represents the Catahoula area and is a former Catahoula Elementary principal, said Louisiana Attorney General-elect Jeff Landry requested the board defer its decision to allow him time to get in office and file an amicus brief on behalf of the school system. Foti said he thinks the school system should bring its fight to trial because the changes would present a financial burden for families in the Catahoula area.
Dill said the deadline for the board to make a decision on the proposal is Wednesday. After its vote, the board adjourned without any discussion of another special meeting before Wednesday.
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.