East Side High School in Cleveland Credit: Kate Royals/Mississippi Today

The Cleveland school district’s latest desegregation plan is prompting all parties involved to begin talks, signaling a resolution might be near.

A federal court filing notes that in a telephone conference between the U.S. Department of Justice, the plaintiffs and the Cleveland School District, “the parties expressed a desire to engage in settlement negotiations regarding the District’s new proposed plan” in the decades-long lawsuit.

The parties have been instructed to inform the court of the progress of settlement negotiations by Dec. 16.

“On the conference call with the judge, all parties indicated that they would be interested in and or open to discussing potential settlement of the case,” Cleveland school board attorney Jamie Jacks said. “I believe that’s why the judge allowed for a period for parties to engage in talks in the scheduling order.”

The movement comes after the school board proposed a new desegregation plan that involves using facilities on both sides of the railroad tracks that run through the community, separating what had historically been the predominantly white west side of Cleveland from the predominantly black east side.

The original plan presented by the school board would have only used buildings on the west side — Cleveland High School and Margaret Green Junior High. Earlier court filings by the Justice Department concluded that those schools had a disproportionally higher white student body than the district as a whole while the student populations of the high school and middle school on the east side of town were almost entirely black.

The latest plan would house all 9th and 10th graders on the current East Side High campus, while 11th and 12th graders will be located at Cleveland High. All 6th through 8th graders, with the exception of those at Bell Academy and Hayes Cooper Center, would attend Margaret Green Junior High.

“I believe this Unified High School Plan will enjoy the support of the entire community and will have a most positive effect on the issue of student departure, including white student departure,” Cleveland School District Superintendent Jacquelyn Thigpen’s affidavit states. “I believe, on the issue of white student departure, it is superior to the Government’s plan and the Court adopted plan of May 13, 2016.”

Thigpen said in the affadavit that “I base my opinion on my conversations with multiple parents, stakeholders, knowledge of the district and being a life-long citizen of Cleveland and graduate of the Cleveland School District.”

There has been some fear that a move to integrate the school district could lead to white students leaving the public school system.

Calls to the plaintiffs’ attorneys were not returned Tuesday. The U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment on the latest developments in the case.

The Citizens for Consolidation group held a meeting Tuesday evening with one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys present to facilitate the meeting.

“What we’re trying to do is put it before the people, discuss the options, the pros and cons of both plans,” said Rev. Edward Duvall, referring to the district’s latest plan and U.S. District Court Judge Debra Brown’s May 13 order. Duvall is a member of Citizens for Consolidation and an alum of East Side High.

Jacks announced that the Cleveland school board will hold a town hall meeting Dec. 1 to update the public on the case and provide details of the newest plan. Questions about the case or the plan can be submitted to voice@cleveland.k12.ms.us.

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Kate Royals is a Jackson native and returned to Mississippi Today as the lead education reporter after serving in the same capacity from 2016 to 2018. Prior to that, she was a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger covering education and state government. She won awards for her investigative work, including stories about the state’s campaign finance laws and prison system. She was a news producer at MassLive in Springfield, Mass., after graduating from Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communications with a master’s degree in communications.