Cleveland schools mull appeal of federal consolidation order

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Cleveland school officials say they are considering whether to appeal a U.S. District Court order that they consolidate local high schools and middle schools to resolve a 50-year-old desegregation case.

Judge Debra Brown of Greenville on May 13 ordered Cleveland School District and the U.S. Department of Justice to present her by mid-June a proposed timeline for a plan to end the Delta town’s racial disparities in four facilities – Cleveland High, East Side High, D.M. Smith Middle and Margaret Green Middle schools.

“Consolidation represents the only constitutional avenue presented and available to this court,” Brown wrote in her 96-page opinion.

Bolivar County

Bolivar County

A school district statement, published on its website, said the Cleveland School Board “believes the plans it proposed … were constitutional and in the best interest of students, parents and the community” because it “allowed for students and parents choice.”

The statement also said the board “is considering its options for appeal.”

To reach acceptable desegregation, Cleveland School Board proposed what it termed an “open enrollment” system or combining its middle schools with “two racially balanced high schools.”

The district, with a population of about 19,000 residents, encompasses 109 square miles and serves the cities of Cleveland, Boyle, Renova and Merigold. The district’s racial composition is about 45.5 percent white, 51.5 percent African American and 3 percent other races, according to the 2010 Census. Some white students in the area attend two local private schools.

Since 1965, the school district in Bolivar County has been under a court-mandated desegregation order arising from a lawsuit against the Bolivar County Board of Education that schools were being operated on a racially segregated basis.

Across the decades, various federal court orders mandated changes for full desegregation, but little changed until 1985 when the U.S. Department of Justice accused the school system of frustrating implementation of the court’s 1969 order and impeding elimination of two sets of schools to maintain racial segregation.

In 2012, the court observed that despite the districts efforts, East Side High School and Smith Middle School remained racially identifiable African American schools with attendance of more than 97 percent black students.

The legal case came to Brown’s oversight in July 2014 after the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a plan which allowed local “freedom of choice” for students.

That’s when Brown asked the United States and the school district to file competing plans to achieve desegregation.

Her May 13 decision, selecting the U.S. plan, culminates that process after she ruled the district’s two plans unconstitutional.

“There is no dispute here, that in violation of the Constitution, the district has operated a dual system,” Brown wrote, “and that … the district has failed to achieve the greatest degree of desegregation possible under the circumstances.”

The U.S. plan aims to begin operating the consolidated schools for the 2016-2017 school year for most students in 6th-12th grades. Faculty and staff also will experience reassignments.

Its plan estimates that the new high school, in the current Cleveland High, would open with about 1,098 students with a racial makeup of 62.9 percent black, 32.4 percent white and 4.7 percent other.

The new middle school, in the current East Side High facility, would open with some 692 students with a racial makeup of 70.5 percent black, 26.2 percent white and 3.3 percent other.

Opponents to the plan claim the changes would cause “bright flight,” as well as loss of white students, which reportedly has occurred with similar efforts in school districts in Natchez-Adams, Hattiesburg and McComb.

They also expressed worries that consolidation of athletic programs will be problematic.

Plan supporters dispute the impact on student loss or athletic and extra-curricular programs.