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Hereford v. United States

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Northeastern Division

November 14, 2017

SONNIE WELLINGTON HEREFORD, IV, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
UNITED STATES, Intervenor Plaintiff,
v.
HUNTSVILLE BOARD OF EDUCATION, et al., Defendants. Year Black White Other District Year Black White Other District Year Black White Other District Year Black White Other District Year Black White Other District Year Black White Other District Year Black White Other District Year Black White Other District Year Black White Other District

          MEMORANDUM OPINION REGARDING STATUS OF CONSENT ORDER IMPLEMENTATION

          MADELINE HUGHES HAIKALA, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         On April 24, 2015, the Court entered a consent order in this public school desegregation case. That order identifies the steps that the Huntsville Board of Education may take to eliminate from the Huntsville school district the vestiges of racial segregation so that the Board may ask the Court to conclude its supervision of the district. (Doc. 450). The Huntsville Board of Education operated under the consent order during the 2015-16 school year and the 2016-17 school year. This opinion concerns the district's progress toward the end of federal supervision over those two years.[1]

         To obtain relief from federal supervision, the Huntsville Board of Education not only must fulfill its obligations under the consent order but also must demonstrate the Board's willingness to maintain the goals of the consent order after supervisions ends. The latter objective requires the Board to demonstrate “good faith.” As the Court stated in its June 30, 2014 memorandum opinion in this matter,

“To be entitled to the end of federal court supervision, a formerly dual school system must be able to prove that it has (1) complied in good faith with the desegregation decree, and (2) eliminated the vestiges of prior de jure segregation to the extent practicable.” Duval Cnty. School, 273 F.3d at 966 (citations omitted). “The good-faith component has two parts. A school district must show not only past good-faith compliance, but also a good-faith commitment to the future operation of the school system through ‘specific policies, decisions, and courses of action that extend into the future.'” Lee [v. Autauga Cnty. Bd. of Educ.], 2004 WL 2359667, at *4 [(Oct. 19, 2004)] (quoting Dowell v. Bd. of Educ. of the Oklahoma City Public Schools, 8 F.3d 1501, 1513 (10th Cir.1993)) (citations omitted).

(Doc. 364, p. 94)

         As the parties implement the consent order in this case, the Court is paying close attention to the second aspect of good faith - the Huntsville district's commitment to the future operation of the City of Huntsville school system through courses of action that extend into the future and indicate a willingness on the district's part to maintain the goals of the desegregation order after the Court dissolves the order. To release a public school district from federal supervision, a district court must be reasonably confident that a school district will not revert to prior unconstitutional practices. This is where the rubber meets the road.

         The members of a school board and a district's superintendent bear primary responsibility for demonstrating that the school district will maintain the goals of a desegregation order after federal supervision ends. But in a system like Huntsville's where the public elects the members of the school board, and the members of the school board select the superintendent, ultimate responsibility for good faith rests with the electorate. Elected representatives do the will of their constituents. Absent political will, genuine, systemic change - as opposed to expedient, short-lived suspension of unconstitutional policies and practices - cannot be achieved. Therefore, in examining the district's progress in its implementation of the consent order, the Court is paying close attention to the public will and the extent to which the Huntsville community supports not only the letter but the spirit of the consent order.

         The consent order provides monitoring tools designed to make transparent the district's work under the consent order, so that the United States, the public, and the Court may evaluate the district's progress under the consent order. One of those tools is an annual report that contains copious information relating to each of the Green factors that the consent order addresses. (Doc. 450, pp. 89-91). The consent order also establishes a Desegregation Advisory Committee - DAC, for short. The DAC-through community meetings, a dedicated webpage, and other means of communication-gathers information relating to the implementation of the consent order. (Doc. 450, p. 88; Doc. 509, pp. 2-3, 6). The DAC shares that information with the district's superintendent and the Court, and the DAC publishes an annual report. (Doc. 450, p. 89). The consent order authorizes the United States to make site visits at the district's schools and administrative offices. (Doc. 450, p. 90). To familiarize itself with schools in the district and to get a sense of school climate, the Court participates in site visits from time to time. The Court also conducts public hearings at which members of the community have an opportunity to share with the parties and the Court observations about the implementation of the consent order.

         On November 15, 2016, the Huntsville Board of Education provided to the United States and to the Court an annual report for the 2015-16 school year, the first full year of implementation of the consent order. (Doc. 500 through Doc. 508).[2] On September 5, 2017 and September 14, 2017, the Court visited a number of schools with counsel for the parties. On September 6, 2017, the Court held a public status conference at which the Court received updates from Huntsville School Superintendent Dr. Matt Akin, Huntsville Director of Strategy and Innovation Christie Finley, and Huntsville Deputy Superintendent of Instruction Dr. Tammy Summerville. In advance of the hearing, the Court also received written comments from members of the community via email messages to the DAC, and members of the Huntsville community spoke at the September 6, 2017 hearing at the conclusion of the parties' presentations. (Doc. 537, pp. 192-237). The Court relies on these sources of information for purposes of this memorandum opinion.[3]

         1. The Board's Efforts to Implement the Consent Order and to Fulfill its Reporting Obligations

         During the 2015-16 school year, the Huntsville Board of Education developed procedures and supporting documents designed to promote uniform implementation of the Consent Order, “so that even if all new employees took over the implementation of the Consent Order, the transition would have only a minimal effect, if any, on implementation.” (Doc. 500, p. 3). The Board developed implementation protocols for student assignment, equitable access to course offerings and programs, extracurricular activities, faculty, facilities, and student discipline. (Doc. 500, p. 3; see generally Doc. 450).

         The Board also submitted its 2015-16 Annual Report on time. The report is more than 2, 400 pages long. (Docs. 501-08). The Board filed a 45-page preface that provides an overview of the 2015-16 academic year. (Doc. 500).[4] In addition to these formal reports, the district gathers data throughout the school year to enable the district to monitor its progress under the consent order. (Doc. 508). The Board reports that it has woven its monitoring efforts into “each school's Continuous Improvement process, so that those goals are embedded in the daily instructional process and expectations monitored by the principals.” (Doc. 508, p. 5). The Board also routinely responds to requests for information from the United States. (Doc. 537, pp. 48-53).

         Gathering data and completing these reports is an arduous task that requires diligence and attention to detail. The reports are imperative to all stakeholders' ability to assess the extent to which the district is progressing in its efforts to comply with the consent order.[5] The Board's effort to create uniform procedures for the implementation of the consent order also was a considerable task and one that is important to the Board's compliance with the order. The Court recognizes the district's significant efforts in this regard and views the self-monitoring, in particular, as evidence of a good-faith commitment to the future identification of racial disparities within the district, so that those disparities may be examined and alleviated.

         2. Facilities - Recent School Construction

         For the 2016-17 school year, students at Sonnie Hereford Elementary School, McNair Junior High School, and Jemison High School attended brand new schools. Before the beginning of the 2017-18 school year, the Board completed construction of Grissom High School and Morris P-8. (Doc. 500, p. 32; Doc. 537, p. 138).[6] The district has completed renovations at Whitesburg P-8, Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School, and AAA P-8. (Doc. 500, p. 33; Doc. 507-3, p. 2; Doc. 537, pp. 138-139). The district also has complied with its obligation to install SMALLabs in schools that house grades seven and eight, thereby providing an innovative educational tool to all seventh and eighth grade students in the district. (Doc. 507-3, p. 12; Doc. 537, p. 138; see generally Doc. 450, pp. 71-72). The Court has visited the new schools; the facilities appear to be excellent.

         The consent order states that this district must “provide equitable facilities so that no matter where a student attends school[, ] the facility will provide the student with equal access to a quality education.” (Doc. 450, p. 71). For the most part, the new school facilities are equitable. There are some exceptions. The new Grissom High School, a predominately white school, has tennis courts; the new Jemison High School, a predominantly black school, does not. (Doc. 507-9, p. 2). In addition, there have been maintenance issues relating to the athletic facilities at Jemison High School; there is no evidence that there are similar issues at Grissom. (Doc. 537, pp. 234-236). The Court reminds the Board to ensure that all facilities are equally well-maintained.

         The consent order also requires the Board to request approval from the Court before “making any school renovations or additions that would alter the M-to-M transfer capacity of a school.” (Doc. 450, p. 72). The Court reminds the Board of this obligation.

         3. Student Assignment

         a. Magnet Programs

         Magnet programs enhance desegregation by drawing students from across the City of Huntsville to unique programs offered at only one location in the district. To enhance the availability of magnet programs and equity in the selection of students for those programs, the district has adopted a uniform online application. (Doc. 537, p. 38). The district also has undertaken a significant effort to advertise its magnet programs. These efforts have produced a nearly 40% increase in magnet school enrollment. (Doc. 537, p. 41).

         The district now boasts the only middle school magnet program for gifted students in the greater Huntsville area. (Doc. 537, p. 39). A number of magnet programs in the district seem to attract a large number of applicants, fostering the ability of these programs to serve as a desegregatory tool. (Doc. 501-4, p. 2). So popular are these programs that for the 2015-16 academic year, because of space restrictions, the district could not accommodate all of the applicants that it received for the AAA, ASFL, Columbia, New Century, and Jemison College Academy programs. (Doc. 501-4, p. 2).[7] The Court hopes that through the Board's marketing efforts, the Board will continue to generate interest in these and the other magnet programs within the district. It appears that the Board is working to fulfill its obligation to ensure that magnet programs are not duplicated at multiple schools within the district, so that the programs may serve their desegregatory purpose. (Doc. 500, pp. 11-12).

         b. M-to-M Transfers

         M-to-M transfers enable a student to move from her zoned school where her race is in the majority to another school where her race is in the minority. During the 2015-16 school year, 348 students requested M-to-M transfers for the 2016-17 school year. (See Doc. 501-1, pp. 2-10). The Board granted 216 of those requests. (See Doc. 501-1, pp. 2-10).[8] The Board denied 132 of those requests. (See Doc. 501-1, pp. 2-10).[9] Challenger Elementary and Jones Valley Elementary had the highest number of M-to-M transfers at the elementary level. Approximately 20 students accepted M-to-M transfers to Challenger Elementary, and approximately 20 students accepted M-to-M transfers to Jones Valley Elementary. (See Doc. 501-1, pp. 2-10).[10] At the middle school level, approximately 15 students accepted M-to-M transfers to both Challenger Middle and Huntsville Junior High. (See Doc. 501-1, pp. 2-10).[11] For the district's high schools, four students accepted M-to-M transfers to Grissom, and two students accepted M-to-M transfers to Huntsville High. (See Doc. 501-1, pp. 2-10).

         Consistent with the terms of the consent order (see Doc. 450, p. 18), the district distributed one survey to M-to-M parents and another to M-to-M students to evaluate the M-to-M program. The response rate for the parent survey was low. Only 6.3% of eligible parents (or 51 of 813) responded to the survey. (Doc. 501-1, p. 17).[12] Because of the low response rate, the responses are not statistically significant. (Doc. 500, p. 9). Of the parents who responded, more than 75% (or three out of four) provided favorable responses to the following questions:

• The M2M transfer gives my student better academic opportunities;
• My student's school is more academically challenging than his/her zoned school;
• My student is able to excel academically because of the M2M transfer;
• My student feels welcome in his/her school;
• My student gets along with other students at his/her school;
• The leadership at my student's school is supportive of his/her success;
• I am glad my student is on an M2M transfer; and
• I am satisfied with where my student was placed for the M2M transfer.

(Doc. 501-1, p. 17).

         Parents were less satisfied with issues relating to transportation and the lottery process. For example, of the parents who responded to the survey, only 48% were satisfied with the transportation to and from his or her student's school, and only 44% were satisfied with the lottery process that the district uses to assign M-to-M transfers. (Doc. 501-1, p. 17).

         The students' responses to the district's M-to-M survey largely mirror the parents' responses, but the response rate is significantly higher. Ninety-two percent of the students surveyed responded. (Compare Doc. 501-1, p. 16 with Doc. 501-1, p. 17; Doc. 500, p. 6). Of the students who responded to the survey, students indicated mid to high satisfaction with respect to the following questions:

• The M2M transfer gives me better academic opportunities;
• The M2M transfer gives me better extracurricular opportunities;
• The M2M transfer is convenient for me/my family;
• My school is more academically challenging than my zoned school;
• I am able to excel academically because of the M2M transfer;
• I feel welcome at my school;
• I get along with teachers at my school;
• I get along with other students at my school;
• The principal and staff at my school are supportive of my success;
• I am glad I am on an M2M transfer;
• I am satisfied with the application process to receive an M2M transfer; and
• I am satisfied with where I was placed for the M2M transfer.

(Doc. 501-1, p. 16).[13]

         M-to-M students were more satisfied with bus transportation and the lottery process than their parents. Of the students who responded to the survey, 63% provided favorable responses when asked whether they were satisfied with the bus transportation to and from their school, and 61% provided favorable responses when asked whether they were satisfied with the lottery process for assigning M-to-M transfers. (Doc. 501-1, p. 16). According to the survey key, the answers to these two questions indicate low to mid student satisfaction. (See Doc. 501-1, p. 15).

         c. Good Faith

         In its preface to the 2015-16 annual report, the district stated that there were aberrations in the report which the district attributed to a number of factors, including “[i]ssues driven by the interactions of newly blended student populations.” (Doc. 500, p. 2). A few schools within the district have experienced more significant changes in student population than most of the schools in the district. The schools experiencing the most significant changes in student population include Blossomwood Elementary, Jones Valley Elementary, and Huntsville High School.[14] Because of their proximity to predominantly African-American neighborhoods, these schools received more black students through rezoning. (Doc. 446, p. 222; Doc. 450-1, pp. 2, 13; Doc. 450-3, p. 7; Doc. 537, pp. 65-68; Doc. 537, pp. 60-61; Compare Doc. 382, p. 6 with Doc. 463-6, p. 2 and Doc. 507-9, p. 2). Additionally, many parents selected these schools as their first choice for M-to-M transfers. (See Doc. 501-1, pp. 2-10). It is reasonable to infer that parents selected these schools as their first choice for M-to-M transfers because a transfer necessarily requires additional travel, so that a relatively close transfer school is preferable to a distant school. The combination of rezoned black students and black M-to-M transfer students at these schools has altered the racial composition of student populations at these schools. In reaction to the initial shift in the racial composition of the student populations at these schools, some white parents withdrew their children from the schools, contributing to the overall shift in the racial composition of the student bodies in the schools.

         These shifts in student populations have produced the most written feedback that the Court has received regarding the implementation of the consent order. Of the thousands of families whose children attend public schools in the City of Huntsville, the Court has received fewer than a dozen written submissions expressing concern over shifts in student populations, but the Court recognizes that the fairly ...


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