A federal judge has approved an alternative plan for desegregating Tangipahoa Parish schools that may save the district the expense of building new schools and will give parents more freedom in choosing the best schools for their children.
The new student assignment plan, jointly proposed by the School Board and attorneys representing the parish’s black community, calls for expanding magnet programs, changing grade configurations at certain campuses and redrawing attendance zones rather than building three new elementary schools as previously ordered.
School district officials repeatedly have said they could not afford to build the three new schools after voters in 2011 overwhelmingly rejected a series of taxes that would have paid for the construction and related costs. The alternative plan, they said, would desegregate the schools faster and more affordably by using program enhancements to draw students across attendance lines to under-capacity and racially segregated campuses.
The new plan, which U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle approved Tuesday, is slated to go into effect starting with the 2016-17 school year. If all goes well, the school system would be declared unitary, or desegregated, in the area of student assignment by the end of the 2019-20 school year.
School Board President Brett Duncan said Thursday that district officials are huddling to determine how best to implement the new plan.
“They’re also going to be making sure we spend a lot of time, effort and resources educating parents on what this new plan will mean for each of their families,” Duncan said.
Gideon T. Carter III, a lawyer representing the parish’s black community in negotiations over the student assignment plan, stressed Thursday that the plan is a working document.
“It’s supposed to start the process, so as we proceed, that document is going to change, and the changes may be substantial,” Carter said. “The final product may not even look like what’s attached to the motion.”
Asked if there are particular areas of the approved plan he anticipates would change, Carter said, “We’re looking at all aspects of the plan, including attendance zones, facilities and student capacities. All of those issues have to be considered.”
He said there is no single area of the plan that particularly concerns him.
Duncan, the School Board president, said both sides agree that adjustments may become necessary. “But the overall direction is clear, which is the direction of trying to make each of these schools attractive, viable options and freeing families up to pick the option that works best for them.”
Duncan, who was instrumental in developing early versions of the plan, hailed the court’s approval as a significant victory for the district and for the community as a whole.
“This gives us a sense of stability and allows us to go back to just being a unified community and hopefully will put to rest a lot of the division we’ve had in years past,” Duncan said.
It is unclear whether or how Lemelle’s approval of the new student assignment plan will affect a separate order he issued in May, appointing an independent auditor to determine whether the School Board truly could not afford to build the three new elementary schools.
The parties had specifically stated in court filings outlining the new plan that the plan would remove the obligation to build the three previously ordered elementary schools.
But the consent order Lemelle signed also acknowledges implementing the new plan might require addressing the “construction of new schools where necessary to accommodate or consolidate the anticipated student body populations and to better utilize existing facilities.”
As of Thursday, Lemelle’s order appointing governmental accountant Michael Bruno to investigate the school system’s finances had not been rescinded or modified.
“I didn’t understand why the court appointed that person in the first place, so I certainly can’t tell you how or whether this impacts his job one way or the other,” Duncan said Thursday.
Bruno’s costs will be tacked onto the School Board’s running tab for litigating the desegregation case. Those costs, including the salaries of court-appointed experts and officers, have exceeded $4 million since the case was reopened in 2007.
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