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.

The St. Martin Parish School Board has approved a plan to reconfigure Catahoula Elementary to rezone older students to St. Martinville schools in an effort to keep the school open and bring the district a step closer to ending its decades-old desegregation lawsuit.

The plan that was approved in a special meeting Monday creates a preschool through fifth grade school at Catahoula. Older students for grades six through eight who had been zoned to attend there would be assigned to St. Martinville Junior High, a school with a majority black student population.

Catahoula is a predominantly white rural area, and the student population reflects the racial makeup of that community, with a small percentage of black students attending the school. As part of the plan, some students who now attend St. Martinville Primary would attend Catahoula Elementary in grades preschool through first grade.

The district had been operating under the assumption that a desegregation lawsuit, filed in 1965, had closed in 1974. However, a judicial review of cases across the country a few years ago revealed that several, including the one filed in St. Martin Parish, had never officially been closed.

The plan was offered as an alternative to proposals the board rejected last week. Those proposals — to either close Catahoula Elementary or to create a preschool through first grade campus there — were offered after consultation with opposing counsel.

Last week, board attorneys told the board that opposing counsel gave assurances that they would not push for changes at other schools across the district if the board closed Catahoula or created a Pre-K through first-grade campus there.

Board attorneys are set to present the board’s plan to address issues of student assignment and quality of education at a hearing in federal court on Jan. 19. The plan filed into court record is to create a magnet program to attract students interested in Cajun and zydeco music and culture. However, opposing counsel with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the U.S. Justice Department do not support the magnet program concept, according to court records.

In court filings, Justice Department attorneys said the school district hasn’t done enough to ensure its schools are no longer racially identifiable.

It’s unclear if the board’s new plan for Catahoula will satisfy the opposing side or if the board-approved proposal will keep the district out of court.

Pam Dill, an attorney handling the case on behalf of the School Board, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

St. Martin Parish School Board Superintendent Lottie Beebe said the plan must pass muster with opposing counsel and the federal judge. Beebe deferred other comments about the plan to the board’s attorney.

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.

Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.