A federal judge ruled Wednesday that the St. Helena Parish School District has achieved unitary status, ending its desegregation case after 66 years.
The decision from U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson, chief judge of the court's Louisiana Middle District based in Baton Rouge, brings the civil rights lawsuit to a close and and releases the school district from federal supervision.
Attorneys for the school board and the plaintiffs welcomed the ruling they said came as a result of significant improvements to the school system over the past decade.
"The system has made amazing progress," said Jay Augustine, counsel for the plaintiffs, originally a group of parents of black children, who first sued in 1952. He cited more inclusiveness, better facilities and academic progress.
"Is it a perfect system? Absolutely not. What system is?" Augustine said. "But the system has obviously complied with good faith efforts and all legal requirements in doing away with the vestiges of segregation."
The 1,188-student school district fulfilled most of its obligations two years ago, but there remained outstanding issues relating to student assignment.
St. Helena has one school each for elementary, middle and high schools. Those institutions are cumulatively 89.7 percent black and 8.5 percent white, according to the court documents.
The racial makeup of the school district still exists in sharp contrast to the demographics of the parish as a whole, which the U.S. Census estimates is 45 percent white and 52 percent black.
But Augustine said the district has made good faith efforts to achieve parity, even as many parents choose to send their kids to private, parochial or online schools.
In court briefs, the school board says it has worked to eliminate what is called "zone-jumping," in which some parents send their kids to schools in neighboring parishes. A 2016 motion by the school board estimated 65 students were doing this.
The school board says in court documents that it has done much to try to eliminate zone-jumping by improving the quality of the schools within St. Helena Parish and more monitoring of the residency of the students.
Randy McKee, counsel for the St. Helena Parish School Board, said that over the past 66 years, but especially in the past decade, the school district has upgraded facilities and improved faculty and educational programs. This is due in part to recent successful tax measures.
The middle and high schools now had D rankings — earlier the middle school was taken under state control for several years with an F ranking — and exhibits filed by the school board cite improved graduation rates, enrollment, ACT scores, renovated buildings, salary increase for employees and a new stadium and classroom building as recent achievements.
Augustine cited as important improvements the nicer facilities and the leadership of Superintendent Kelli Joseph.
“We believe the community, the stakeholders, as well as the school system have demonstrated a willingness to work together in recent years and have worked together very well," Augustine said.
Parents of black children in St. Helena Parish first sued the school district in 1952 for operating separate, unequal and racially segregated schools. The original petition said the facilities and school funding for black schools were inferior to those for white schools. Operations spending at that time for the district's 1,048 white children was $156,000 a year, while it was only $123,000 for the 1,624 black students, the petition said.
The original lawsuit was signed by the future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, then an attorney for the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund. It predated the Supreme Court's ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka and was the oldest desegregation case still ongoing in Louisiana, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.
The school system was put under court order to desegregate in 1960. Two years ago, U.S. District Judge James Brady determined the district had met its federal obligations regarding faculty, staff, transportation, facilities and extracurricular activities. But he left open the issue of school assignment.
In his 2016 ruling, Brady called this desegregation case a "classic example of a scenario that has played out time and time again in so many public school districts across this nation."
After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that "separate but equal" had no place in education, the districts refused to integrate voluntarily, he wrote.
"When finally forced to do so by the courts, most of the white students fled the public schools, leaving the districts overwhelmingly composed of African American students," Brady wrote.
He said that led to the white tax base in St. Helena refusing to adequately fund the schools until recently when a bond issue was passed to improve education and academic performance. Writing before his death in December 2017, Brady said he hoped the schools would come out from under any supervision soon.
Jackson took over the case since Brady's death.
Brandon Fremin, U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Louisiana, called it a historic day for the people of St. Helena Parish.
"The road to desegregating our schools has undoubtedly been challenging and marked by great difficulties, but it is a road that had to be traveled, both legally and morally," Fremin said in a statement. "I commend Chief Judge Jackson and his predecessors, including the late Judges Brady and Parker, as well as the parties and their attorneys, for their collective dedication to this important and historic matter."
McKee said the school board plans to continue moving forward with the best interests of the students in mind.
"The school board is going to continue to do what it has been doing, providing quality, accountable education to all students," he said.