As Tangipahoa Parish public schools implement a new student assignment plan in hopes of bringing an end to their desegregation lawsuit, the school district’s officials are fighting with a court-appointed officer for control of the reins in leading the case to resolution.
Donald Massey, a court compliance officer appointed last August, has recommended to the federal judge overseeing the 50-year-old case that the schools’ chief desegregation implementation officer position be converted to an external job more directly under Massey’s control.
School officials oppose his suggestion, saying the district’s progress toward integration has made the implementation officer position unnecessary or, at the least, a much narrower job.
Shifting the duties to an outside person would prevent school officials from showing the court that they can successfully run the system without intervention, School Board President Brett Duncan said Friday.
The move also would drive up costs for the district, “which is essentially what Mr. Massey has done since he came on board.” Duncan said. “He wants his own pay raise. He had the court bring in an outside CPA expert. And now he’s trying to bring in another person. The board’s objective is to save money and redirect as many dollars as possible to the classroom. His requests are just the opposite.”
Massey did not return messages seeking comment for this article.
The court compliance officer and chief desegregation implementation officer positions were both created with court approval in 2008, a year after the parish’s long-dormant desegregation case was reopened to resolve a dispute over a coaching position in Amite.
The compliance officer was created as a court-appointed, neutral position — independent of both the plaintiffs from the parish’s black community and the school system. The compliance officer’s role, as spelled out in court records, is to aid the judge in monitoring the parties and ensuring compliance with the court’s orders.
The desegregation implementation officer, on the other hand, was created as an internal school system position, designed to help the superintendent and School Board coordinate and carry out the plans necessary to follow the court’s orders.
The implementation officer position has been largely vacant since Assistant Superintendent Lionel Jackson resigned from the post after this past school year, in preparation for his retirement. In Jackson’s absence, the district divvied up those job duties among other administrative staff.
Massey suggested in an annual report filed with the court in July that a local pastor, the Rev. Andrew Jackson, be appointed as the new implementation officer. Massey said the pastor’s service in various positions caring for and educating at-risk youth and their families, along with his willingness to assist Massey and the court, made him an excellent choice for the job.
“He commands respect,” Massey wrote of the Rev. Andrew Jackson, “and he brings an independence from TPSS that is welcome and well suited to the next phases of this case.”
Massey acknowledged that the implementation officer’s job description, adopted by the court in 2008, was tailored for a school system employee. He suggested the description be revised.
Key among the suggested changes was that the implementation officer would no longer report to, or take direction from, the superintendent or School Board and would no longer supervise school district employees.
Instead of coordinating and supervising the district’s desegregation efforts from within the school system, the implementation officer would oversee and approve those efforts from the outside and report back to Massey and the judge, according to Massey’s proposal.
Massey suggested that the revised position could outlast even the compliance officer’s position, though he did not speculate as to how long that might be.
Massey said if the court disagreed with those revisions, he would like to have the pastor appointed as his assistant court compliance officer — a position that does not currently exist.
School officials have balked at Massey’s suggestions.
“He is shifting the responsibility of actually running the case over to him — an outside officer,” Duncan said. “That essentially takes away our ability to show the court that we can do this — we can comply with the 14th Amendment — without judicial interference.”
Attorneys for the school district have argued the implementation officer position is no longer needed because its duties have diminished over the past seven years as the district achieved unitary status, or integration, in areas ranging from transportation to extracurricular activities.
The administrative staff handling the remaining implementation officer duties now could continue to do so, the attorneys said.
“The elimination of the CDIO position would not adversely affect desegregation but would allow the Board to demonstrate its ability to move forward without such a position,” attorneys Pam Dill and Ashley Sandage argue in a motion filed Aug. 28.
If the job is not eliminated altogether, it should at least be curtailed to match the remaining tasks the district must accomplish to be declared unitary in all areas, the attorneys said.
In a separate motion filed the same day, the attorneys asked the court to approve their chosen candidate for the position, retired educator Lawrence Thompson, who was the district’s child welfare and attendance supervisor from 2005 to 2010 after serving decades as a teacher and principal.
School officials appointed Thompson as acting implementation officer on Aug. 18, after considering a number of possible candidates including the Rev. Andrew Jackson, and consulting with members of the black community, according to the motion.
Letters of recommendation for Thompson from former Superintendent Louis Joseph and former board member Ann Smith, both of whom are black and had worked with Thompson for years, were provided in support.
Duncan said Friday he could not speculate as to Massey’s reasons for wanting to make the implementation officer an outside job.
“Given this is such an extraordinary request, you’d think he would outline some kind of reason that would justify it,” Duncan said. “I wish I knew.”
“The whole goal of the case is to put us on a path to return local control of the schools. Mr. Massey’s request sends us in the opposite direction.”
Follow Heidi R. Kinchen on Twitter, @HeidiRKinchen, and call her at (225) 336-6981.