School board attorney discourages Equity Committee from including charters in desegregation effort

The state doesn’t enforce federal desegregation orders for charter schools – despite federal law – therefore it seems local charters aren’t subject to oversight under the school district’s federal desegregation order. Such was the advice of Indian River County School Board Attorney Suzanne D’Agresta to the Equity Committee last month at the committee’s meeting

The Equity Committee was formed by a federal court order issued by Judge Kathleen Williams in September that amended the federal desegregation order the district has operated under for the past five decades. The committee is charged with monitoring the district’s progress in meeting the requirements of the 1967, 1994 and 2018 versions of the desegregation order, which mandates equal treatment, access and education for black students, staff and teachers.

The committee asked D’Agresta if the district’s charter schools are subject to the order.

“We need to look at it from two perspectives,” D’Agresta said, “from the federal, from the U.S. Department of Education, and then we also need to look at it from the State Department of Education.

“The U.S. Department of Education has taken the position that all charter schools are required to comply with any federal desegregation orders that may be in place.

“The state government in the charter school statutes has one very broad statement that says charter schools are supposed to be similar to the demographic information of other schools within the district. . . [but] the State Board of Education is not as supportive with regards to taking adverse action against a charter school if they do not meet a particular benchmark.”

D’Agresta’s comments left it unclear which of the various governmental standards prevails, leaving in doubt the committee’s authority to oversee the county’s charter schools under the terms of the desegregation order.

As it is, local charters are not well integrated.

District-wide, black students make up 17 percent of the student population, while white students comprise 54 percent. The balance of the students are Hispanic, Asian and other.

During the past school year, only six percent of students at Indian River Charter High School were black and nearly 70 percent were white.

Imagine of South Vero had 4 percent black and 80 percent white students last school year.

Sebastian Charter Junior High had so few black students last year it was statistically insignificant and no percentage was given. The white student population was 67 percent.

St. Peter’s Preparatory Academy had 46 percent black and 12 percent white students last school year, with many black students grouped together in this one school.

North County Charter was the most integrated of the five charter schools in the district with 11 percent black and 64 percent white students last school year.

There is a radical disparity in charter school teaching staffs, as well. The 1994 desegregation order said teacher employment at each school is to mirror the student population, plus or minus 9 percent, while the 2018 updated order said the district must try to employ at least one black teacher per school.

But there were no black teachers at Indian River Charter High School during the past two school years, according to Attorney Olivia Kelman, who represented the NAACP in the recent court action brought by the school board to amend the 1994 order.

Likewise, Imagine of South Vero and St. Peter’s Preparatory Academy had no black teachers in 2017 or during many earlier school years, according to Kelman.

Charter schools educate a significant and growing part of the Indian River County student population. About 13 percent or 2,304 students of the 17,792 student total population went to charters last year. Another charter, Somerset Academy, is expected to open in a year and a half, plans showing 1,700-student enrollment, according to county building department documents.

The Equity Committee is made up of five members, two appointed by the school district and two by the local chapter of the NAACP, the plaintiff in the court case that resulted in the long-running desegregation order. The school district appointed Director of Assessment and Accountability Chris Taylor and Assistant Principal of Vero Beach Elementary Rachel Moree. The NAACP picked its education director, Jacqueline Warrior, and secretary, Willie Finklin.

Those four members were empowered to choose the committee’s chairman, and they selected Merchon Green, a civil rights activist and founder of Pioneering Change who ran for school board and lost by a narrow margin in November.

The committee did not take a vote regarding oversight of the charter schools, or express an opinion about what D’Agresta said, so it is not clear what the committee plans to do, but Green did express unhappiness about the status quo.

“We need to treat our district as a whole so we don’t have pockets of segregation. We’re basically working on desegregating our traditional schools, while allowing segregation in our charter schools.”

Leave a Comment