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UPDATE: Superintendent issues statement on desegregation ruling

Blanchard appointed Superintendent of St. Martin Parish schools
Posted at 1:22 PM, Jun 28, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-28 14:22:33-04

CATAHOULA, La. — St. Martin Superintendent Allen Blanchard issued a statement in connection with last week's court ruling in the parish's decades-old desegregation case.

Last week, a federal judge rejected the parish's request for "unitary status," and instead ordered several changes be made, including the closure of the historically-white Catahoula Elementary School.

The statement from Blanchard tries to make it clear that the board has no choice but to follow the judge's orders.

"Catahoula Elementary parents, faculty, and staff should expect to receive further information from the Administration within the next few weeks. Please be on the alert for mail, email, and Jcalls concerning this ordered action," the superintendent writes. "The Board and Administration understand the emotions and disruptions involved in this matter; however, please be assured that all reasonable steps are being taken to ensure a smooth transition as the Board complies with this federal court order."

Here's the full statement:

BREAUX BRIDGE - The St. Martin Parish School Board has been the defendant in a desegregation case that was first instituted in 1965. In 1974, the United States District Court found that the Board had achieved unitary status; however, in 2014, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit found that no judgment was ever issued to dismiss the case. Since that time, the Board has been working, diligently and in good faith, to meet certain desegregation obligations set by orders entered in 2015 and 2016 by the federal court. Since that time, the Court has found that the Board acted in good faith and met its obligations in the areas of extra-curricular activities, transportation, facilities, and staff assignment and has dismissed the desegregation case as to those factors.

On June 21, 2021, the federal judge issued a 161-page decision finding that the Board had, in good faith, met its obligations and achieved unitary status in the additional areas of course assignment, graduation rates, and in-grade retention rates. However, the federal judge also engaged in a lengthy analysis to render its opinion that further relief was necessary to fully desegregate the District in the areas of student assignment, faculty assignment, discipline, and graduation pathways. As a result of such findings, the Court issued a number of orders that require the Board to take certain actions.

The Court ordered the Board to close Catahoula Elementary School and to transfer its students to the Early Learning Center or St. Martinville Primary School as a means to further desegregate those St. Martinville elementary grade schools. The Board is compelled to comply with this federal court order; therefore, the Administration is presently taking the steps necessary to comply with the order. In accordance with it, this change will take effect as of the 2021-2022 school year.

Catahoula Elementary parents, faculty, and staff should expect to receive further information from the Administration within the next few weeks. Please be on the alert for mail, email, and Jcalls concerning this ordered action. The Board and Administration understand the emotions and disruptions involved in this matter; however, please be assured that all reasonable steps are being taken to ensure a smooth transition as the Board complies with this federal court order.

The Court also ordered a number of other actions be taken in the areas of student assignment, faculty assignment, discipline, and graduation pathways. As the Board engages in further examination of its options related to these areas in light of the Court’s decision, further information will be provided. The Board and the Administration appreciate the continued understanding, consideration, and cooperation of parents, students, faculty, staff, and the public.

Here's some background on what happened last week:

"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.