Seeking to end a 51-year-old desegregation case, the St. Martin Parish School Board heads to federal court next month with a plan to diversify the 92 percent white student population at Catahoula Elementary.
The School Board on Monday rejected a proposal its attorneys had negotiated to close the PreK-8 school or operate it with only 50 students in preschool through first grade. The board opted instead in a 5-4 vote to accept keep Catahoula and all other schools in the district open.
Acceptance of that proposal would have brought the board a step closer to resolving the desegregation case, which district officials assumed was closed in 1974. It was resurrected a few years ago when it was discovered the case and others across the country had never been officially closed.
The board’s attorneys hoped to avoid a trial and informed board members that opposing counsel had indicated that it would not require changes at any other schools in the district, if the board addressed the racial imbalance at Catahoula Elementary.
St. Martin Parish Schools Superintendent Lottie Beebe referred questions about efforts to resolve the case to the board’s attorney, Pam Dill.
During a hearing scheduled for Jan. 19 in federal court, board attorneys will present plans to address issues of student assignment and quality of education, said Dill, of Hammonds, Sills, Adkins & Guice, the firm handling the desegregation lawsuit on behalf of the School Board.
Part of the School Board’s plan filed with the court involves creating a magnet program focused on Cajun and zydeco music and heritage at Catahoula Elementary as a way to attract students from across the parish to the small, rural school. However, opposing counsel indicated it doesn’t believe that plan is an effective way to desegregate the school, Dill said.
“The plaintiff and the United States have filed motions for further relief,” Dill said. “They each contend that the proposed magnet program would not adequately desegregate Catahoula and neither believe it’s a viable, practicable desegregation measure, so they did not include that in their proposal” that was considered by the board on Monday night.
“With the strong popularity and African American roots of Zydeco music, having such a program at any school in the parish would be a strong draw for African American students,” the School Board’s attorneys wrote in court filings. They added that a “well-known and popular African American Zydeco artist” has offered to help start and teach at the academy.
The plan would be to open the academy for grades kindergarten through fourth as soon as the 2016-17 school year with a goal of having a 50 percent white and 50 percent black student population, court records show. White students currently zoned for Catahoula would be eligible to apply for any open seats, while priority enrollment would be given to black students from St. Martinville. A lottery system would be used to fill any open seats.
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.
The area is populated by a majority-white population — a circumstance beyond the School Board’s control, attorneys argue in court records. Some parents who spoke at Monday’s meeting to urge the board to fight for the school made similar statements, asking the school not be penalized for the racial make-up of the community.
Justice Department attorneys say the district has not done enough to ensure its schools are no longer identified by race.
The school system enrolls 8,422 students representative of about 51 percent white students and 46 percent black students. As of Oct. 1, eight schools in the parish are racially identifiable and deviate more than 20 percentage points from the district-wide racial composition:
BREAUX BRIDGE ELEMENTARY: 31.4 percent white and 67.4 percent black
CATAHOULA ELEMENTARY: 91.5 percent white and 6.8 percent black
EARLY LEARNING CENTER: 29.6 percent white and 67.3 percent black
PARKS PRIMARY: 72.1 percent white and 25.7 percent black
ST. MARTINVILLE PRIMARY: 26.2 percent white and 70.9 percent black
STEPHENSVILLE ELEMENTARY: 97 percent white and 1.5 percent black
Justice Department attorneys wrote in other filings that the district’s proposal for the magnet program won’t work unless black students voluntarily transfer to the school.
Even then, because of the phased-in approach starting with kindergarten through fourth grade, the program won’t be in full effect for grades preschool through eighth grade until the 2020-21 school year, which doesn’t meet the legal requirement that the plan “promise to realistically work now,” the Justice Department attorneys wrote.
“The Board does not point to any evidence suggesting that black families can be persuaded to apply for admission to the magnet program,” Justice Department attorneys wrote.
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.