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Tangipahoa Parish Schools Superintendent Melissa Stilley is hoping to end the long-running desegregation case by focusing on equity.

AMITE — A decade after the long-standing school desegregation case in Tangipahoa Parish was reopened, people on both sides say they believe they are on the right path to finally resolve a lawsuit that dates back to President Lyndon Johnson’s administration.

Central to the turnaround is Melissa Stilley, the new school superintendent appointed last summer.

The first woman in the job, she was a longtime teacher and administrator in the parish. She returned in June 2018 after a stint with the Louisiana Department of Education, and says she's committed to working with the parties to ensure the parish school system affords an equitable educational opportunity for all of its students.

“Your zip code shouldn't determine the quality of education you get, and that's a foundational belief I have," Stilley said in an interview. "For me, it’s not so much any more about 'deseg' as it is about equity for all kids.”

To be sure, obstacles remain to closing out the desegregation case. Attorneys for the black families say the schools aren’t adequately funded, and more progress needs to be made on racial balance in the schools. One also questions if the school system is making fundamental changes — or just surface-level ones. 

But even the judge overseeing the case acknowledged things are at last moving forward.

"I have hope," U.S. District Judge Ivan L. R. Lemelle told The Advocate.

A long road

The school system's desegregation case was first filed in 1965, a decade after the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision.

Under court orders, the school system closed many of its black schools and moved those students into what were once all-white schools. Then, the case fell dormant until the mid-2000s when the black community raised concerns about a once again segregated system.

Schools in Ponchatoula, Loranger and Sumner were predominantly white, while schools in Hammond, Independence, Amite and Kentwood had become predominantly black. 

Members of the black community complained that their kids were stuck in inferior facilities — one of which was said to have a major sewer issue — and were provided outdated textbooks.

In addition, the percentage of black teachers in the systeme had fallen from 40 percent to 20 percent, said Nelson Taylor, a civil rights attorney for the plaintiffs. 

"You still had proliferation of one-race schools and the school board was not looking at changes,” Taylor said.

By October 2007, although the 19,500-student system was 48 percent black and 52 percent white, just 12 percent of students were attending desegregated schools, defined as schools with student populations that fall within 15 percentage points of the school system's composition, according to court documents.

In fact, a quarter of the system's 36 schools were more than 90 percent one-race. Just six schools met the metrics to be called desegregated with respect to student assignment.

"It's very difficult when you look at the way it all transpired, it is very difficult to make an argument there was not some intention behind it," said Hammond-area School Board Member Brett Duncan.

In in the mid-2000s, the Tangipahoa Parish branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People filed a petition to reopen the long dormant suit, using a controversial hiring call on an Amite High School football coach as their test case.

For years after this, school officials and plaintiffs fought each other in court about how to desegregate the schools. In 2010, the judge ordered a plan that included building three new schools. But that never happened, because voters rejected tax proposals meant to fund it.

Towards the future

School officials see ending the desegregation case as a priority. As long as it remains an open case, the superintendent's hiring decisions are subject to restrictions, and the court has to approve new construction — even, in a recent instance, a new walkway for a school.

One factor that is giving people on all sides of the case new optimism towards the closure of the case is the appointment of the Stilley upon last year's retirement of Mark Kolwe.

Stilley is a longtime classroom teacher and former school principal in Tangipahoa Parish. She served as the chief academic officer under Kolwe before joining the state Department of Education as a network leader supporting schools around the state. There, she assisted schools, including ones in the midst of desegregation cases.

"My approach is that we have to come to the table with an open mind and we have to be able to do some things, be creative in some solutions," she said.

In an interview last fall with the Advocate, Stilley ranked the desegregation case third on her list of priorities, following safety and academics.

Stilley said she’s eager to put the case to bed due to the strict requirements that come with it — and the legal fees. 

"That is an expense I would like to see going towards our children,” she said.

In fact, attorney fees have totaled $4.4 million since the case was reopened in 2006, but that is less than .3 percent of the school district's general fund spending, according to figures provided by the school system.

The legal expenses aside, closing the case should be the result of the school system creating a more equitable educational environment for all its students, Stilley said.

"I think there have been some really good things that have come from the deseg case," she said. "I think it has put the light on some inequities across our parish that we have fixed and will continue to fix."

There are six categories areas that a school district must prove to the court have been desegregated in order to get a final order of unitary status. The Tangipahoa Parish School System has achieved full unitary status in the areas of transportation and extracurriculars and has provisional unitary status in the areas of facilities and staff assignment. The two remaining factors are student and teacher assignment — essentially the racial makeup of teachers and students at the schools.

Stilley said she will first address the issue of teacher assignment and then turn back to student assignment, an area the school system has made major changes in the past couple years.

The court has set the school system a goal of hiring 40 percent black teachers. But the system currently employs just 25 percent, according to a report filed in the court record in August.

Stilley has developed a plan to recruit more black teachers by stepping up its efforts to recruit them directly from colleges to Tangipahoa Parish. She also wants to implement a program to certify teachers in-house. She said the school system has a large number of black teachers who are not certified.

Gideon Carter III, lead settlement counsel for the plaintiffs, said he’s encouraged by Stilley’s efforts.

One specific area of improvement, he said, is in hiring administrators. She has shown a willingness to make permanent appointments instead of interim ones, a long-time grievance against her predecessor. 

"We have new leadership. Now things are different,” Carter said. "I think at this point, we’re moving in the right direction in Tangipahoa Parish. One year ago, I would’ve said we were moving backwards.”

Today

The most significant change the school system has made in the past couple years is implementing a student assignment plan that avoids new construction, and new taxes.

The effort, led by Duncan, adjusted some boundary lines to improve the racial breakdowns at the schools, allowed for more transfers and added magnet and STEM offerings in the hopes of attracting families to send their children to public schools.

Duncan, who opposes what he calls "forced busing," said the plan was designed to avoid "white flight" while increasing the number of students in desegregated schools.

The student assignment plan has received mixed reviews. Shortly after it was implemented in Fall 2016, the court compliance officer issued a report saying the plan desegregated some schools while it made others more segregated.

One particular issue involved the schools in Hammond. White students were bused to an International Baccalaureate school there from Robert, displacing black students, who were moved to a nearly all-black school. 

Representatives for the school and the black community worked on these issues last summer and implemented changes at the beginning of the 2018-2019 school year that have yet to be formally evaluated for the court. 

Overall, as of October 2018, 64 percent of students attended desegregated schools, while 36 percent do not, according to a document provided by Duncan. That is more than twice the number of students attending desegregated schools in 2013, according to court documents. Twenty-one of 33 schools meet the parameters for desegregation in student assignment. About 49 percent of the system's 19,100 kids are black.

Done by 2020?

Therese Domiano, the school board's most recent past chairwoman, who retired from the board this year, predicted the case could end within two years.

"We’re on a fast track to unitary status,” Domiano said in an interview. "I'm excited."

But attorneys on the side of the plaintiffs and leaders in the black community say the end is not so near. 

Taylor, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said some schools may be nominally desegregated in student assignment, but more changes and new schools would be needed to dismantle the old system.

“If they had moved so dramatically, they would be trying to get unitary status in student assignment. They don't dare file that motion,” he said.

One big outstanding issue: The school system still relies heavily on temporary buildings, which could be removed once the school system achieves unitary status. If the system wants to build new schools now, it must get the court to agree on a way to build them that would "best promote a unitary system."

"Everybody knows what temporary buildings are for, to maintain the status quo which keeps the system segregated," Taylor said.

Ultimately, there is no fix unless there is more money to improve the schools, said Carter, the other attorney for the plaintiffs. 

“You pass the tax to support the school system first, and that tends to end the case," Carter said. "I can't end the case until there is equity, (and there is) no equity without money.”

Follow Caroline Grueskin on Twitter, @cgrueskin.