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Catahoula Elementary closed after judge rules out unitary status

Blanchard appointed Superintendent of St. Martin Parish schools
Posted at 4:08 PM, Jun 22, 2021

CATAHOULA, La. — A federal judge has denied the St. Martin Parish School Board's request for unitary status in their decades-old desegregation case, and updated the order and the requirements the board must meet - and that update includes the ordered closure of Catahoula Elementary School.

"The District is ORDERED to close Catahoula Elementary to grades K to 5 beginning in the 2021-2022 school year," Monday's ruling from U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Foote states. "Those students should instead be assigned to ELC (Early Learning Center) or SMP (St. Martinville Primary)."

In her 161-page ruling, Foote denies the district's request for unitary status in the areas of student assignment, faculty assignment and quality of education (discipline). She ordered the parties to come up with plans to address these areas, and said she expects the district will remain under court supervision for at least the next three years.

In the area of student assignment, "...the District is not entitled to unitary status because it has not demonstrated a good-faith ongoing commitment to integration," Foote wrote.

Mike Hefner is a demographer who testified at the case. He says he understands what the judge says, but disagrees with the decision since he says the trends were pointing towards desegregation anyway.

“The district has moved forward and made good progress in desegregating the student body over at Catahoula, compared to 2016 when the case came back up,” Hefner explained. “And the trend was leaning towards having a desegregated student body.”

He proposed a change of boundaries that could change the percentages of Black and white students at the school. The judge still ruled to close the school, but he doesn’t think the solution matches the problem.

“On paper, it may look like it improves it, but if parents opt to do something different than send their kids to the St. Martinville schools, they’re not going to see the results that they're thinking,” he continued.

Although he says he provided an objective look at the issue supported by data and trends impacting Catahoula’s racial makeup, he says the closure could impact the area.

“At this point and time, I am disappointed because whenever you close a school in a small community, it really affects that small community and I was kind of hoping we could avoid here,” he said.

The court also ordered the system to implement "robust" magnet programs at ELC and SMP, and follow the suggestions that experts provided during testimony - which includes creating programs that parents say they want and implementing an effective communications and marketing plan. And, the system must come up with an effective student transfer plan that offers families the chance to desegregate parish schools voluntarily, the court ordered. Finally, Foote ordered the district to work with the plaintiffs to come up with a solid consent order that works going forward.

In American desegregation cases, school systems can request a ruling of "unitary" once they meet certain criteria. Locally, several school systems have achieved unitary status, including Lafayette Parish. That means the district is no longer under court supervision in terms of segregation. To meet the criteria, the school system must prove that they aren't still segregated in the areas of student assignment, faculty assignment, staff assignment, extracurricular activities, facilities and transportation. The case that created the structure was originally filed by the Green family, and so these criteria are often called "Green factors."

The judge's ruling, which was handed down on Monday, came following a hearing in March.

St. Martin Parish already has been declared unitary in the areas of transportation, staff assignment, facilities, and extracurricular activities, the judge notes. That leaves the areas of student assignment, faculty assignment, and quality of education. In order to prove it is unitary in a certain area, a district has to prove it has, in good faith, done as well as is practical to eliminate the "vestiges" of previous segregation rules, laws and practices.

Foote wrote that the district has successfully integrated its middle schools, and come very, very close in high schools. But because ELC and SMP continue to be "racially identifiable" as black, the district isn't entitled to be declared unitary in student assignment.

Foote added that she doesn't order the closure of Catahoula lightly.

"The Court understands that the closing of Catahoula will cause a loss to the entire Catahoula community. For example, Superintendent Blanchard, whose mother was the principal at Catahoula for several years, remarked that the school is well-liked in the community and, along with the church, is one of the main pillars of the Catahoula community," the order reads. "But the closure will benefit the education system of the entire Parish in the long run by providing increased opportunities for all students. Most importantly, the school’s closure will contribute to the elimination of the vestiges of prior de jure (legalized) segregation."

The court tried to avoid closing the school back in 2016, but it didn't work, she wrote.

The court also rejected St. Martin Parish's request for unitary status in the area of faculty assignment.

"In this case, the District has not achieved unitary status as to faculty because the District has not met the desegregation goals and it has failed to demonstrate good-faith compliance with the Faculty Consent Order, specifically in regard to recruitment efforts," Foote wrote. "Additionally, retaining supervision over faculty assignment is necessary and practicable for the District to achieve compliance in other areas, especially student discipline."

The district employee in charge of teacher recruitment didn't even know what goals were in the 2016 consent order, Foote wrote, and their testimony indicated that there was no real effort at all, let alone good faith effort. To help correct that, the court ordered the district to work with the plaintiffs to come up with a recruitment and retention plan for a new consent decree.

Finally, the court rejected St. Martin Parish's request for unitary status in the area of quality of education (discipline). Foote found the district's attempts to improve this area have been incomplete and not in good faith, and ordered the parties to come up with a plan in this area as well.

The parties will meet again in July to discuss progress. The court's order contemplates that the district will continue under court supervision for at least the next three years.