The change would make decisions such as school consolidations questions of solely local interest, saving the system legal costs and time, Robison said.
The talk stopped and the three board members who are black went on the defensive.
Anniston’s not ready, they agreed, and dismissed the suggestion. They were not ready even to talk about the issue.
Board member Arthur Cottingham said later he was willing to listen to Robison’s arguments, but he didn’t think it would change his mind.
“I just don’t feel we’re ready,” Cottingham said.
Robison’s suggestion came after Hutchings expressed frustration that system consolidation couldn’t even begin in the coming 2012-2013 school year.
Getting out from under the ruling would speed things up, Robison said after the meeting.
He’s probably right. Anniston’s school system, along with Oxford and Calhoun County school systems, has been under the watchful eye of the U.S. Justice Department ever since the 1972 Lee v. Macon decision, which determined how the school systems in the state would desegregate. The department became the agency that determined whether schools were following the law of the land. That continues to mean that decisions a school board makes regarding school enrollment lines, school construction and school consolidations have to be reviewed and approved by the Justice Department before the system can move forward with the plans.
It was meant to protect minority students who were being slighted in the “separate but equal” education system. But 40 years later, Anniston board members disagree on whether that oversight is still necessary.
Attorney Whit Colvin said Lee v. Macon affected, he believed, nearly every school system in the state. Colvin, who advises the state department of education on the decision, said Lee v. Macon is the general name given to many of the desegregation cases filed in Alabama in the 1960s and every system in the state at that time was subject to at least one lawsuit or another.
The requirements of each decision vary from one case to another, but in general matters such as changing school district lines, consolidating schools, building a new school or expanding facilities all require court approval.
“It mainly deals with where students go to school,” Colvin said.
The decision was meant to ensure that desegregation actually took place and that it took place fairly and equitably, Colvin said.
But many people feel the order has outlived its usefulness and in fact, Colvin said, most systems in the state have been released from the decision. Robison believes Anniston should be among those.
Is it still necessary?
Who is the oversight protecting, Robison asked during the board of education work session.
“We can’t move a district line one house … without justice department approval,” Robison said later. “I want to ask the question of the board, who is Lee v. Macon going to protect in the Anniston City School system?”
The Anniston City Schools student population is 91.9 percent black and 5.7 percent white. Of the elementary schools, Golden Springs has the highest percentage of white students at 15 percent; Cobb has no white students. The majority, 59 percent, of teachers and certified staff in the system are also black. The board is also majority black with three black and two white members.
The population of students in the school system does not reflect the city’s population as a whole. The city of Anniston is 51.5 percent black.
Dismissal from the judicial oversight, also known as being granted unitary status, would mean the dual racial education system “has been firmly disestablished,” Colvin said.
Eric Mackey, executive director of School Superintendents of Alabama and former superintendent of Jacksonville City Schools, said the decision is a vestige of a segregated past.
“We don’t have any state-sponsored segregation in the state anymore,” Mackey said. “There are still some things we have to work on, but there’s certainly no government-sponsored segregation and I don’t know of any place where it’s an advantage.”
But some of the Anniston board members disagree.
“Look how many schools we have in Calhoun County, you know the county schools, the city schools, the private schools,” Cottingham said. “There’s a reason for that. There are cities much larger than we are and counties much larger than we are and don’t have as many schools as we have.”
He won’t say whether he thinks it’s a consequence of discrimination, but it does make him question if Anniston is ready to be released from the court’s protective influence.
Mary Harrington said she sees the oversight as a protection and she isn’t ready to give it up.
“They don’t automatically classify you under Lee v. Macon,” Harrington said. “You have to demonstrate or have not demonstrated something to be protected by it.”
The law ensures that board decisions for the system are being reviewed in regards to their fairness to all students, Harrington said. In her opinion, the percentage of minorities in the system has no bearing on the potential for discrimination and the judicial oversight offers some reinforcement to the laws already on the books.
“We are headed in the right direction, but we’re not there yet,” Harrington said.
The subject of racial discrimination does come up at board meetings. At the same work session on May 15, when white board member Jim Klinefelter lobbied against Tenth Street Elementary School being converted to a middle school, black board member Hutchings accused him of trying to preserve the school’s white population group.
At Tenth Street, nine percent of the students are white.
Klinefelter denied the accusation.
Mackey did note that while there have been many success stories throughout the state where diversity has been embraced, other communities have resisted. He questioned the value of those resistant communities remaining under the ruling.
“What good has the court order done?” Mackey said. “I mean they’ve been under it for 40 years. Have they achieved what the intent of the court was? I would say probably not.”
Other schools in the county have already worked through the courts to achieve unitary status. Two systems, Jacksonville and Piedmont, are not released from the decision, but with all students attending the same schools, their cases were granted a permanent injunction excusing them from having to go through the same process as the other systems in the county, Mackey said.
Calhoun County’s efforts
Calhoun County school system is in the third year of a three-year agreement that will be reviewed, at that time allowing officials to seek dismissal, said Robin Andrews, the Calhoun County Board of Education attorney.
The school system entered the agreement, what Andrews called a road map to unitary status, in December 2009. It has been an intensive process.
“For about a year before that we spent time providing them with all sorts of information to figure out what we all believed were things that needed to improve,” Andrews said. “So that they could recommend to the judge that we had done all that we could do, basically.”
Even as they work through the consent decree, the system is still subject to the judicial oversight and a decision to build White Plains Middle School meant putting together a detailed 100 page report and submitting it to the Justice Department for approval, said Larry Stewart, president of the Calhoun County Board of Education.
It also meant months of delay to justify the board’s decision, he said.
“What matters is what the federal judge says,” Stewart said. “We know we don’t do anything unless it’s needed. What the federal judge wants to know is it needed more there than in a place with a larger concentration of minorities.”
The board attorney said it also creates an image of the system as one that isn’t doing its best for its students.
“It suggests to me, when anybody hears that from another state that’s not accustomed to this, that we’re still doing things that are wrong,” Andrews said. “To me, what a terrible reflection that we don’t want on our school systems to suggest that we still need an order to be desegregated.”
Superintendent Joan Frazier said regardless of what the Anniston board decides, seeking unitary status for the system is not a priority right now. The system is focused on reorganization and another project would just slow that process down.
Board member William Hutchings agreed. When he said the system isn’t ready to seek unitary status he meant, he said, it isn’t his priority.
“We’re trying to build some new structures,” Hutchings said. “Lee v. Macon is on the back burner for me.”
Star staff writer Laura Camper: 256-235-3545.