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No quick bid for unitary schools
Ending court control would remove restraints on building

By Bayne Hughes
hughes@decaturdaily.com · 340-2432

Superintendent Sam Houston said it will be at least a year before Decatur school officials ask to be removed from federal court supervision.

Unitary status will give the system freedom to implement programs and build schools without federal approval, if no law is broken.

Black plaintiffs say, however, that the school system isn’t doing enough to deserve the freedom. They don’t trust the white-majority school board to operate fairly.

Bryan Fair, a constitutional law professor at The University of Alabama, said the federal court would not consider how the parties feel about each other or the trust factor when the school district seeks unitary status.

“I’ve found that the courts don’t care about the local political climate, unless they (school officials) have not done what’s required under their order,” Fair said.

The system is entering the second year of a modified court order that took nine years to get approved. City Council President Billy Jackson led the opposition.

Houston said he would like to operate the desegregation plan for two to three years. This will allow the system data to show the court compliance with its order.

Fair said the federal court would decide if a school district has done everything required to eliminate the dual system ruled unconstitutional under Brown v. Board of Education. The 1954 U.S. Supreme Court case established desegregation law.

“The court will evaluate all of the factors based on the order and decide whether the board has shown a good faith in trying to carry out the court order,” Fair said.

U.S. District Judge R. David Proctor approved Decatur’s desegregation plan in 2004.

Fair said that, unless it’s defined in the court order, the court doesn’t have a typical time period to consider unitary status. Dothan City Schools received the status in June after seven years.

Building new schools is an issue in Decatur because schools are perceived to jump-start growth. For example, Burningtree residents have lobbied for a school for about a decade.

Jackson said plaintiffs have never opposed a Burningtree school and would support such a school. He said that’s not a good reason for granting Decatur unitary status.

Green Factors

The judge will evaluate the school system based on the “Green Factors.” According to an article written by Rusty Gibson in the Alabama Association of School Boards magazine, the court laid out five factors (see chart) in the case Green v. School Board of New Kent County for a judge when considering unitary status. Gibson represents Decatur in its desegregation case.

Opponents like Jackson and school board member Tommy Sykes said they don’t think the board is satisfying the Green Factors. Jackson said the school system has too many problems, including dropout rate, a high percentage of black students sent to alternative school and low test scores.

Houston said the alternative school is 60 percent black and that is one of the lowest percentages in the state and region. On the state’s 2005-06 report card (latest report available), Decatur had 12.55 projected percentage on its dropout rate to earn a B- grade. The state also has a B- with an 11.18.

“Until we have a change in leadership and another group of administrators overseeing the school system, they shouldn’t get unitary status,” Jackson said.

Singleton ratio

Sykes is the board’s only black member. He is unhappy that school officials aren’t willing to go beyond the “Singleton Ratio,” a ratio established in Singleton vs. Jackson Municipal Separate School District for racial hiring. He wants the racial percentage of the teachers to match that of the students at the school in which they’re teaching.

Singleton is not, however, based on student percentage. It’s based on the overall percentage of black-and-white faculty and staff in the school system. Systems have a 15 percent flexibility, but Decatur uses 10 percent to go beyond the requirement.

Sykes contended that Singleton is “not etched in stone. We can do it in a much better and fair way. It’s a court opinion, not law. Case law is the easiest way for the administration to put in a way of doing things that doesn’t change, but it’s not always the right way.”

Houston said the school system is doing what the law requires, but Singleton, which measures only staff assignments, does not address the system’s efforts in recruiting minority teachers.

School officials attend every possible university job fair in the state and have school board permission to sign a quality black candidate on the spot if necessary.

Fair said he doesn’t know enough about Decatur’s case to know how the court would view Singleton and how it relates to Decatur.

Jackson said the city wouldn’t achieve the transportation factor until it provides citywide bus service for all students.

Houston said the court uses student miles traveled as its measuring stick and the approved desegregation plan addresses this issue. He also said school officials are working toward providing a citywide service.

Fair said the recent trend in the federal courts is to give unitary status.

Jackson said he feels unitary status is inevitable and that worries him.

“Once they get unitary status, this school system is not going to be the best system it can be without Big Brother watching over them,” Jackson said.

Green Factors

The U.S. Supreme Court case Green v. School Board of New Kent County, 1968, established the factors a federal judge must consider when deciding whether to grant a school board “unitary status.” Called the “Green Factors,” they are:

  • Student assignment — Are there racially identifiable schools? Has the school system achieved the maximum desegregation practicable?

  • Faculty and staff assignment — Is the school system following the requirements of the Singleton Ratio?

  • Transportation — Is the burden of transportation shared equally among the races?

  • Extracurricular activities — Are all activities open to all students? Do the activities have race-neutral eligibility requirements?

  • Facilities — Are facilities equitable regardless of their racial majority?

    Source: Alabama Association of School Boards’ August 1999 article,“Unitary Status: A New Wave of Litigation”

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