Feds: Cleveland schools’ desegregation plan unconstitutional

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Despite an apparent concession by the Cleveland School District, a resolution to its decades-long desegregation lawsuit does not seem likely anytime soon.

The Cleveland School Board voted along racial lines in July to appeal a federal district court’s plan for desegregating the district’s schools. The plan included combining the majority-black East Side High with Cleveland High, along with consolidating the majority-black D.M. Smith Middle with Margaret Green Junior High.

East Side High School in Cleveland

Kate Royals/Mississippi Today

East Side High School in Cleveland

“The appeal is still ongoing. It’s before the 5th Circuit (Court of Appeals),” Cleveland school board attorney Jamie Jacks said.

Despite the ongoing appeal, the Cleveland School District submitted its own plan to the court, which was not well received by many members of the community or the U.S. Department of Justice. If the court accepts the plan, Cleveland will drop its appeal, Jacks said.

The district proposed housing the consolidated high school at Cleveland High School, transferring all junior high students to the current Margaret Green campus and opening a 6th grade academy at the Walter Robinson Achievement Center (WRAC). All of the facilities in the district’s plan are on the west side of town.

If accepted, a $3.6 million bond would have to pass to fund the construction of a new 9th grade wing at Cleveland High.

The Department of Justice, however, said recently Cleveland’s plan “places the entire burden of desegregation upon black students and their families.”

The proposed closure of East Side, “supported only by the District’s unsubstantiated fear of white flight, is unconstitutional,” the government’s objection states.

Arlene Sanders, a 1978 graduate of East Side, said she finds the district’s plan “unacceptable.”

“To me, it appears as if it is punitive – ‘we will close your schools down because we’re going to consolidate,’” she said.

Cleveland attorney Helen Morris’ daughter is a sophomore at East Side and said the plan makes no sense since East Side is a newer facility, and the Walter Robinson Achievement Center is not set up to accommodate that many students.

Jacks said despite the Department of Justice’s claim that the plan is flawed, the board is “mindful of all of the information we have gathered certainly in the last few years and in the history of this case.”

“We’ve tried multiple efforts, multiple plans and programs to try to attract white students to East Side and those efforts have not worked. We’ve tried redistricting, tried magnet school programs, tried majority to minority transfers, which have not been successful in attracting white students,” Jacks said. “We know when you take away parental choice it results in a loss of white enrollment and also a loss of enrollment in general.”

A previous judge approved an open-enrollment plan that let students in Cleveland attend either East Side or Cleveland High. In addition, Cleveland High students often take International Baccalaureate courses offered at East Side.

Jacks said there is a misconception that D.M. Smith Middle School and East Side High’s facilities will no longer be in use, which she says is false. East Side would temporarily be used for a 9th grade academy and would eventually become an elementary school for students at Cypress Park. D.M. Smith Middle School could be leased out.

According to Jacks, the next step is for each side – the school district and the Department of Justice – to ask questions from the other about the plan. At that point, a hearing will be set for U.S. District Court Judge Debra Brown to rule on the plan.