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

Tangipahoa Parish school officials on Thursday gave their approval to what could be the final step necessary before closing a 54-year-old desegregation lawsuit that has long hung over the heads of the black community and the local school district.

The Tangipahoa Parish School Board, in a special meeting, approved a resolution to enter into final agreement in Moore vs. Tangipahoa Parish School Board. The motion was approved 7-1, with board member Jerry Moore voting no and Janice Fultz Richards abstaining.

Moore, who was named as a plaintiff in the case when he was a minor, said after Thursday's meeting that his family felt as though the agreement was "a paycheck before the job is done."

By entering into a final agreement, it signifies both the plaintiffs and the school district have agreed on the necessary steps to close the case, and if approved by the federal judge overseeing the case, the school district will be awarded its long sought-after unitary status on all fronts. That would free the district of the stringent framework by which they’ve needed to abide for years, which mandates court approval before making large district decisions like building new schools, while still giving the plaintiffs oversight.

The move indicates that both sides agree the district has complied with or has a plan to reach requirements in six key areas — transportation, physical facilities, extra-curricular activities, faculty assignment, staff assignment and student assignment. The district has in the past been granted unitary status in some of these areas, but not all. Particularly it has struggled with student and staff assignment that aims to increase the number of black teachers and staff in the district and ensure a racial balance in each school.

The lengthy case has reached the settlement agreement phase before, but for one reason or another was rescinded when the plaintiffs felt as though the district was not in compliance with the previous agreement, according to plaintiffs attorney Gideon Carter III.

This time, though, Carter said there’s been a change in culture which has resulted in more confidence in the district’s commitment to resolving the issue.

“The thing that’s encouraging this time is we have new leadership, new board members and a new superintendent who appear to be (focused) on doing what’s necessary in order to move the system forward and bring the desegregation case to a final resolution,” Carter said after Thursday’s meeting. The plaintiffs are not seeking monetary award, but rather policy change.

Carter said some of the plaintiff families are uncomfortable at the thought of reaching a final resolution in the case after so long, spurred in part by a lack of trust between the district and black families in the parish. But, he said even after reaching settlement the proposed agreement allows the plaintiffs to come back and question compliance, and bring the case back before a judge. The agreement outlines that annual reports will be submitted to the federal court through the close of the 2021-22 school year.

“There’s a lack of trust not only in the black community but in the white community as well,” Carter said. “Once the system gains the trust of the community then we can all start to move forward.”

School board member Brett Duncan, who represents the Hammond area, said Thursday’s movement in the case was one that will likely benefit both sides, and is the result of lengthy dialogue between both sides.

“It’s been a difficult case for all of us in this community but at the same time I do think we as a community can be proud of the fact we really are coming out better on the other end of this,” he said. “A lot of times with these cases what you see is enrollment drops down, you get white flight, you’ll see a financially crippled school system and this community didn’t do that, we’ve stuck together.”

Though the agreement has not yet been officially made public by court filing, Duncan said the final agreement document addresses issues of student assignment, truancy, discipline, school culture, staffing, teacher assignment and outlines the plaintiffs’ rights going forward.

The desegregation case was first filed in 1965, and under court order the district closed many of its black schools and moved those students into all-white schools. The case then lay dormant until 2007 when the black community raised concerns about a system that had again become segregated. 

Schools in Ponchatoula, Loranger and Sumner were predominantly white, whereas Hammond, Independence, Amite and Kentwood schools were predominantly black. Some of the black families argued their kids were provided with outdated materials like textbooks and their school buildings were inferior.

In 2010, the judge ordered a plan that saw the district restricted in areas like hiring decisions and new construction without court approval, which has proved difficult for a district that relies on many temporary buildings with a growing student population. The order also appointed a court compliance officer tasked with keeping track of the district's strides in reaching unitary status in those six key areas.

The hiring of a new superintendent, Melissa Stilley, last year was seen as a positive move, as she listed resolving the desegregation case as a priority and had experience assisting schools in the midst of desegregation cases through her work with the state Department of Education.

In the most recently filed court compliance officer's annual report for the 2018-19 school year, the compliance officer notes a "paradigm shift" in the district's hiring practices showing intent to comply with the order, and notes Stilley's direct communication with compliance officers and settlement attorneys, which the report notes "would have been an impossibility a year ago."

The district still has not complied with its goal of a 40 percent black staff makeup, but has filed a list of measures to be taken to reach that goal, according to the annual report, including direct marketing, hiring incentives, creating a pathway to certification for uncertified staff members, and increasing awareness of the teaching profession among high school students.

Ultimately, the annual report determined there had been a "critical shift" in the approach to solving the desegregation issues, and noted interactions between the two sides to have moved from combative to collaborative.

The joint agreement adopted by the board at Thursday's special meeting will go to Judge Ivan L. R. Lemelle this week, after which he will decide on whether to approve the proposal.

Email Emma Kennedy at ekennedy@theadvocate.com.