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Lawrence discusses hiring to boost diversity in schools

By Kristen Bishop 340-2443

MOULTON — Lawrence County school officials' new practice of considering race when hiring employees has brought the system a small step closer to meeting federal desegregation guidelines.

The practice is controversial and can often result in less-qualified teachers, but Superintendent Dexter Rutherford said Tuesday that it has helped the system reach greater employee diversity as required by a federal court order.

Lawrence County is one of three local systems, including Decatur and Limestone County, under orders to further reduce racial inequality in schools.

The order also applies to hardship transfers, student diversity and more, but the school board has chosen to tackle its hiring practices first.

The court order requires the system to have the same percentage of black teachers at each school as the overall percentage of black residents in the county. The court allows a leeway of plus or minus 5 percentage points.

Because black residents make up about 12.1 percent of the total population, each school — regardless of its racial makeup — should have between 7.1 and 17.1 percent black teachers.

In May, the school system had an overall 17 percent black staff, but those teachers were unevenly distributed among the schools, according to federal guidelines.

While R.A. Hubbard School had a 68 percent black staff, all the teachers at Hatton Elementary and High schools were white. Only 2.78 percent of teachers at Speake School were black.

Change has helped

Students won't notice a major difference this year, but the hiring-practice change has helped a little, said Rutherford.

The school board hired a black teacher at Moulton Elementary and Speake schools, possibly bringing the schools up to standards, he said. Updated statistics were not immediately available.

The board also hired a black teacher at Hatton High School, but the school needs at least two more black teachers to reach the required percentage, said Rutherford.

East Lawrence, Lawrence County and Mount Hope schools were already close to or within standards.

The superintendent said in May that he was reluctant to factor in race when hiring but that it was the only remaining option after other desegregation methods had failed.

In April, board members approved a $5,000 incentive for teachers willing to transfer to schools needing to diversify. A white history teacher at Hatton and a black history teacher at R.A. Hubbard could potentially switch jobs and receive a $2,500 supplement each for the first two years.

No teachers had accepted the offer in May, and only one had agreed to transfer by Tuesday.

Jimmy Black, who taught agriscience at Hazlewood High School last year, agreed to teach part time at R.A. Hubbard, giving the predominantly black faculty half of a white-teacher unit.

Some school board members seemed uncomfortable talking about teachers in terms of race Tuesday and said there's a downside to the new hiring practice.

"There are aspects of this court order that none of us like, but we have to live with it and deal with it the best we can," said Chairman Bobby Diggs.

Rutherford said the practice is "cumbersome" and has caused "some situations where (administrators) have had to consider things that might not be in the best interest of the students." He declined to elaborate following Tuesday's meeting.

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