Jefferson school officials agree to take further steps to integrate the system _lowres

Cedric Floyd

The Jefferson Parish School Board agreed this week to take additional steps to integrate the parish’s public schools. The action came in response to criticism that has persisted four years after the system was freed from federal oversight brought on by a desegregation lawsuit filed in the 1960s.

A six-point plan the board unanimously endorsed Wednesday calls for the district to reclaim a campus in a predominantly black neighborhood in Metairie that was closed down and then leased to a charter school operator.

A task force — created to preserve the changes prompted by the desegregation lawsuit filed in 1964 by the Rev. Arthur Dandridge and other plaintiffs — objected to the 2012 closure of Ralph Bunche Academy because it affected more black students than white students. The task force argued that violated the court-mandated reforms. The campus now is leased to the International School of Louisiana.

The new plan also orders various school system departments to meet at least twice a year with that task force, said attorney Willie Zanders, who represents the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

School Board President Cedric Floyd said the plan will ensure the school district keeps moving in the direction it’s been heading since it was released from federal oversight related to the Dandridge case.

“The monitoring of the task force will be our goalposts that we need to stay between,” Floyd said.

Although the Dandridge suit led the courts to order Jefferson to implement integration policies such as busing decades ago, it took until 2011 for U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt to determine that the district was adequately integrated.

Even then, the plaintiffs harbored concerns about the district’s integration policies, so officials signed a three-year agreement meant to maintain the changes that had been achieved.

Last year, though, the task force created by that agreement asserted that Jefferson’s schools remained effectively segregated. It also expressed concern that several campuses in black neighborhoods — among them Kate Middleton Elementary, Norbert Rillieux Elementary, Woodmere Elementary and Bunche — had been shuttered and, in some cases, reassigned to charter operators, displacing many black students in the process.

The Dandridge plaintiffs and Zanders successfully demanded to enter into mediation talks with the district to resolve those concerns. Each side also agreed to extend the three-year agreement one year, through 2015.

The end result was Wednesday’s agreement.

Aside from the semiannual task force meetings, the agreement called for the International School of Louisiana to move out of Bunche at the end of its lease in June 2017. It also called for officials to “closely monitor” the operation of the Celerity charter school that now operates at the Woodmere site.

Other points of the agreement call for the district to implement specialized educational programs — arts, Montessori and International Baccalaureate — at more campuses on both sides of the Mississippi River, though some of those already were in the process of being installed.

The board endorsed the plan after officials, including task force Chairwoman Margie Zeno, presented statistics showing that the school system has managed to desegregate more campuses and promote more black employees to administrative positions in recent years, despite hiccups on the way.

For example, seven years ago, only 47 of the 74 schools in the district (63.5 percent) were considered sufficiently integrated; the rest were “racially identifiable” as either white or black campuses. As of October, 58 of the 82 district schools (almost 71 percent) were considered sufficiently integrated.

Also, there are 29 percent more black administrators at east bank schools and 19 percent more at West Bank campuses now than in 2008-09, the presentation showed.

“We’re not perfect,” School Board attorney Mike Fanning said of Wednesday’s agreement, “but we’ve established something to keep us from falling down again.”