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Judge: 1965 Louisiana desegregation case nearing end

April 1, 2021 GMT

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A federal judge says a Louisiana desegregation case filed in 1965 could end in a few years.

Judge Ivan Lemelle said he’s continuing oversight for at least three more years in the case against the Tangipahoa Parish School System north of New Orleans.

But he said the school system has made substantial progress and has plans for how to fully comply with court orders, so he’s granting it provisional status as unitary — that is, no longer divided by race.

After three more years of annual reports from the system, Lemelle will hold a hearing about whether to end the case, he wrote in an opinion released Wednesday.

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“This is a great day, but we still have a lot of work to do,” Superintendent Melissa Stilley, who was appointed in 2018 and commended in Lemelle’s opinion, said in a news release.

Jerry Moore, one of two Black people on the nine-member Tangipahoa Parish School Board, said he was about 12 when his father filed the suit for him and his two sisters.

Lemelle’s opinion doesn’t change much, he said: “It puts the board in the same position it’s always been — in non-compliance with the court order.”

An attorney for the Moores and other families who filed the suit said he found the opinion confusing, even after reading it three times.

“I don’t want to make global comments because I’m still deciphering it,” Nelson Taylor, who joined the legal team shortly after passing the state bar in 1974 and is now the lead attorney, said Thursday.

He said “unitary status” ends court orders in desegregation cases.

“I don’t know what the term ‘provisional unitary status’ means. ... The words don’t seem to go together,” Taylor said.

Lemelle wrote that employment practices, student assignment, and the school buildings and grounds themselves still need work.

Most employment complaints have been resolved and “no credible evidence has been shown of bad faith” over the past 24 months. Stilley and another official showed convincing evidence that a proposed plan will add to “notable advancements to attract and retain educators, especially African American educators,” he wrote.

The system’s “student population is about 49% black and 51% non-black, and its principal and assistant principal makeups practically mirror those percentages,” Lemelle wrote. The number of schools with a racial split of 40% to 60% has risen from 11 to 20 out of 31, he said.

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However, he said, “a disproportionate number of schools appear to have a predominance of both students and teachers of the same race,” and the parish’s four F-rated schools all are predominantly Black.

However, he said, that appears to be a result of several factors including competition, money and the coronavirus pandemic — and don’t appear to be the result of “bad faith decision-making.”

Three of the seven high schools and half of the 24 elementary and middle schools are majority Black, he wrote, citing a ruling from 2017.

He noted that only one of six schools given priority for capital spending is majority Black — one of seven if the board buys a vacant school.

That school shouldn’t be bought, Taylor said, because it was built as a private school for families fleeing integration and its purchase will continue a “white enclave.”

Based only on “credible facts” brought by opponents, Lemelle wrote, he “would not hesitate to reject” current facility plans. However, he continued, equally credible evidence shows that the plans were drawn up to deal with current enrollment and expected growth, “prioritized needs” and replacement of temporary classroom buildings

Lemelle wrote that Stilley’s “team-oriented approach has been vital to TPSS’ current successes.”

The system has shown “good faith commitment to complying with the court’s existing orders and setting forth a plan ... to advance towards unitary status following a three-year probationary or provisional period,” he wrote.

Moore said the court case let him attend a high school run by Southeastern Louisiana University and was among the reasons he ran for the school board.

“It’s something that I’ve been passionate about — having a desire to actually see compliance with the court order coming to fruition,” he said.