On top of all the planning, organization, and money-gathering Calhoun County Schools officials do for any construction project, they have to take one extra step many other systems within the state don’t: get a nod from the feds.
The construction phase of an addition to Ohatchee High School — which recently got underway — is the culmination of years of planning. But before any work could start, before plans could be drawn up, money could be secured, and contracts could be bid out, Calhoun County Schools had to get approval from a federal judge.
“For Ohatchee, it was a sizable enough project, that yes, we needed that approval,” said Whit Colvin, the Birmingham-based attorney working with Calhoun County Schools. “So a couple of years ago, we went and got that approval.”
The school system is one of just a handful left in Alabama still required to get permission from the U.S. Department of Justice when building or consolidating schools, adding to existing schools, or rezoning school districts. Those school districts are subject to a 1967 federal district court ruling in the case Lee v. Macon County Schools, which was used to end the state’s racially segregated education system. More than 100 school districts in Alabama came under watch from the federal government as a result of the ruling, but in recent years many systems convinced the court they no longer needed its oversight.
Erica Pippins, a public information specialist with the Alabama Department of Education, said 46 of Alabama’s 135 school districts are still under federal desegregation orders, including Calhoun County, Anniston and Oxford. Only nine school systems were never under federal rule, while 78 districts have been released from court oversight because they’ve achieved “unitary status,” meaning all traces of separate systems for blacks and whites have been eliminated.
Almost all of the districts still under federal supervision are in northern Alabama, said Eric Mackey, the executive director of School Superintendents of Alabama. Mackey, a former superintendent of Jacksonville’s schools, said a federal judge left many of these cases open in the early 2000s, while cases in the middle and southern districts of Alabama were closed.
Many of the school systems still under decree, including Jacksonville and Piedmont, are under federal watch legally, but not in practice, Mackey said. Because those school systems only operate one school for a certain grade level, there is no need for a federal ruling when it comes to zoning or new school construction. Anniston, Oxford and Calhoun County don’t have the same luxury.
Calhoun County has been trying to get out from under federal regulation since 2007. That year, the system got into trouble over the construction of White Plains Middle School. Although a federal judge ruled the system could build the new school, final approval didn’t come until after construction on the school had begun.
In 2009, Calhoun County Schools adopted a plan to work with the U.S. Department of Justice to get out from under the provisions, specifically by working to hire and retain more minority teachers and faculty. According to figures supplied Tuesday evening by Calhoun County Superintendent Joe Dyar, the system in 2010 had 29 education-certified employees who were black; in 2011, that category numbered 37; in 2012, 45. In the 2013-14 school year the number of education-certified employees who were black dropped to 39, representing 8 percent of the staff at the time, Dyar said. The black student population was about 13 percent that year.
Colvin declined to talk about specifics regarding the school system’s plan with the Department of Justice.
Anniston’s public schools are under the same federal supervision as the county, but until now have never applied for unitary status. Superintendent Darren Douthitt said on Tuesday that he’d like to change that.
“I understand why we needed these laws, but in our district now, I don’t see why Anniston still needs them,” said Douthitt, who plans to address the issue with the Anniston Board of Education in the next few months. “I’m not opposed to oversight, but it seems now in the 21st century, we’ve moved ahead.”
Mackey shares Douthitt’s views on federal oversight, and said while federal regulation on desegregation was important when Alabama districts were resisting change, the intrusion has now become mostly obsolete.
“There are no districts in Alabama that aren’t fully integrated,” Mackey said. “There isn’t anywhere where someone is telling you that you can’t go to school because of your religion or race, or anything. So to me, there are no advantages to this federal decree.”
Editor's note: This version of this story is changed from the original posted version. It reflects new information supplied by a school official.