Center to Argue School Desegregation Case at the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals

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The Center for Civil Rights, on behalf of several African American parents and the Pitt Coalition for the Education of Black Children (“the Coalition”), recently appealed a decision from the Eastern District of North Carolina denying their motion for relief, which sought a judicial determination that Pitt County Schools’ (“PCS”) 2011-2012 student reassignment contravened the 1970 desegregation orders still governing the district. PCS is one of the few remaining school districts in the country still under a federal desegregation order, and the board’s affirmative duty to show that its actions move the district toward unitary status is at the core of the appeal to be argued before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals on January 26, 2012.

The case, Everett et al. v. Pitt County Schools, was re-opened in 2008 when, as part of the settlement of a discrimination complaint filed by a White parents’ group, the Greenville Parents’ Association (GPA), with the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR). PCS sought a declaration in the district court of the status of the 1970 desegregation orders in Teel v. Pitt County Board of Education and Edwards v. Greenville City Board of Education, as well as clarification of the board’s obligations pursuant to those orders. At that time, the Center, with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights serving as co-counsel, intervened on behalf of the Coalition and individual African American parents.

The court found that there was insufficient evidence to determine whether the board had complied with the desegregation orders (the cases were removed from the active docket in 1972), and directed the parties to engage in discovery. The GPA then filed a motion for unitary status, claiming that PCS was no longer controlled by Teel and Edwards. Following court-ordered mediation, the parties reached a settlement which the court approved in November 2009.

Members of the Coalition strategize at a community meeting

Pursuant to the order approving the settlement, PCS agreed to involve the Coalition and the GPA in the development of the 2011-12 student reassignment plan, and the unitary status motion was withdrawn. Additionally, the court considered whether the board had in fact eliminated the vestiges of discrimination and concluded it had not: “It is time for the School Board to follow course and fulfill its obligation to attain unitary status so that it may reclaim complete control over its schools.” The parties were ordered to “work toward attaining unitary status so that the court may relinquish jurisdiction over this case and restore to the school board full responsibility for the operation of its schools,” and to submit, on or before December 31, 2012, “a report detailing the School Board’s efforts and progress in achieving unitary status and eliminating the vestiges of past discrimination to the extent practicable.”

In 2010, the Coalition (with the support of the Center and the Kirwan Institute) and the GPA participated in two PCS board retreats to discuss and develop the 2011-12 student reassignment plan. PCS unilaterally restricted the reassignment to about a third of the district, leaving out several racially isolated schools around the county. Both the Coalition and the GPA questioned how a partial reassignment would comply with the desegregation order and move the district towards unitary status, but the board gave no response.

Given the board’s refusal to consider a district-wide reassignment, the Coalition supported the proposed scenario which achieved the best overall results on the board’s established criteria-- proximity, capacity, and proficiency—and which also produced the best racial balance of the plans presented. Instead, the board selected a plan which missed the board’s stated proficiency and capacity targets, projected significant increases in racially-identifiable, non-White schools with low student achievement, and opened a brand new elementary school as one of the most racially isolated and lowest achieving schools in the district. Both the Coalition and the GPA voiced concerns that the selected plan moved the district further away from unitary status, and thereby violated the court orders. The board also refused repeated requests to seek court approval before moving forward with the plan.

In April 2011 the Center filed a motion requesting the district court to enjoin implementation of the reassignment on the grounds that it violated the board’s desegregation obligations under Teel and Edwards. Although the motion requested an expedited hearing (in light of the pending 2011-12 school year), a hearing was not scheduled until August 16, 2011, four months after the motion was filed and just nine days before the start of the school. The Center argued that the board had not carried its burden to show how the reassignment plan works to eradicate the vestiges of race discrimination and move the district toward unitary status. In denying the motion, the court placed the burden of proof not on the board, but on the Coalition and individual Black parents, and held they had not satisfied the movant’s burden under a preliminary injunction standard to show “likelihood of success on the underlying merits” and that the “balance of the equities” tipped in the board’s favor.

The Center appealed the decision, arguing in its brief that the application of the preliminary injunction standard was a fundamental error of law. There was nothing preliminary or extraordinary about the relief sought in the motion to enforce the existing desegregation orders, which resolved the “underlying merits” of the case some forty years ago. In seeking to enjoin a reassignment plan that increases racial disparities among schools, the Coalition and Black parents urged the court to exercise its historical power and responsibility to supervise the board’s compliance with the controlling desegregation orders. Half a century of school desegregation law clearly establishes that, given the uncontroverted pre-unitary status of this district, the board bears the burden to prove that its actions are in compliance with its affirmative duty to eradicate the vestiges of the racially discriminatory dual system. By erroneously placing the burden on the Coalition and the Black parents, the court abdicated its historical and continuing role to oversee, enforce and effectuate the controlling law of the case.

Read the Center's brief (PDF).

Posted by Mark Dorosin on Sun. December 4, 2011 10:35 PM
Categories: Education, Pitt County, Race Discrimination, Segregation
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