TPSS building

The Tangipahoa School System Building in Amite City, La.

As the Tangipahoa Parish School District exits a 56-year-old desegregation lawsuit, NAACP leaders are pushing the district to change school board maps they say are gerrymandered to hinder Black residents’ representation in school politics.

A letter by the NAACP national Legal Defense and Educational Fund and Tangipahoa Parish chapter argues the school district map violates section two of the federal Voting Rights Act. A pattern of “packing” Black voters into swollen districts strips them of opportunities to elect candidates of their choice in others, the letter said.

The letter follows a federal judge’s statement in March that Tangipahoa Parish schools had made progress in one of the nation’s longest-lasting desegregation cases, filed in 1965. That suit scrutinized discriminatory hiring practices in schools.

The NAACP letter says school board elections are one of few ways residents can directly influence decision-making about school curricula and programs. The parish will soon redistrict based on the 2020 census results.

“What they said in March was that the district was making good faith efforts,” said Michael Showers, president of the Greater Tangipahoa Parish NAACP Branch. “If you’re making good faith efforts, those efforts should transcend the classroom and the administration, and should reach the school board level.”

Nearly a third of the rural parish’s roughly 135,000 residents and over 50% of public school students in Tangipahoa Parish are Black. But two of nine elected school board members are Black.

Of Tangipahoa’s nine school districts, two are “majority-minority” districts — parcels where minorities comprise a majority of voters.

The current map disproportionately places Black voters into Districts A and G, where 69.33% and 62.01% of registered voters are Black, respectively, according to the NAACP study — something the Voting Rights Act “does not require or justify,” the authors said.

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They argued that Tangipahoa’s current school district map likely satisfies all three of the U.S. Supreme Court’s rules that analysts use to identify breaches of the landmark voting ruling.

The Legal Defense Fund presented the school board a new map that would give the parish three majority-minority school districts instead of two. It would also make the districts closer to equal size.

In an Aug. 18 response to the NAACP’s study, school board attorney Ashley Bass emphasized that the current redistricting plan — including parcels where the NAACP observed “packing” — earned preclearance from the U.S. Department of Justice in 2012.

“Therefore, it is highly unlikely that a court would conclude contrary to the preclearance issued by the US DOJ,” Bass said.

But the justice department granted that preclearance under the fifth section of the voting rights act — not the second, the NAACP later responded. That means a court could still hold that the map violated the Voting Rights Act under the second section.

Rather than seeing it as a continuation of the district’s desegregation case, school superintendent Melissa Stilley described the NAACP’s request as part of a process of re-evaluating representation in the parish each time redistricting happens.

“Based on the new census, it’s time to redraw lines and look at representation of our people,” Stilley said. “I think it’s a natural process that happens.”

Her new administration worked to close gaps in schools’ racial disparities in hiring, helping to end the desegregation case.


James Finn writes for The Advocate as a Report For America corps member. Email him at JFinn@theadvocate.com or follow him on Twitter @RJamesFinn.

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