INDIAN RIVER COUNTY — The Indian River County School Board destroyed much of the fragile trust it had built up with the NAACP over the last year when it withheld a desegregation order study from the public, pulling the presentation at the last minute after previously promising to share the information with the community.
The district paid law firm Husch Blackwell $150,000 to conduct a study of the district’s past and future desegregation status with the aim of figuring out how to get out from under a longstanding federal court order.
Husch Blackwell recently advised the board to keep the study confidential and the board agreed.
NAACP President Anthony Brown said the action confirmed what his group always suspected – the study is a legal strategy for the benefit of the school board, not an information-seeking tool for the benefit of the community, including the NAACP and the board.
Brown said the NAACP, at this point, prefers the court continue to oversee desegregation compliance to ensure equality is attained and maintained. He noted Pinellas County’s “failure factories” occurred after court oversight there was lifted in 2007.
After court oversight went away, the Pinellas school board stopped funding desegregation busing and student support programming at five elementary schools in poor black neighborhoods. The schools had three years of upward gains behind them in 2007 and all were graded C or above, but by 2015 the failure rate for math or reading was 95 percent and all were F schools.
“For one year we’ve been talking,” Brown told the school board. “When we started, this was about transparency, but in the twelfth hour, we have litigation. I can’t go for this. After nine months you’re telling us your lawyer didn’t know this was an open dialogue?”
Indian River School Superintendent Mark Rendell’s explanation threw gas on the fire. He said he learned a week ago Husch Blackwell wanted to present the study results in executive session, yet he informed the school board only the day before and some members of the NAACP found out just hours before the July 26 school board meeting.
Rendell said confidentiality is needed because, “We are currently in litigation. We are under a court order.”
Thirty-four Florida school districts were put under federal desegregation orders in the wake of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, according to Propublica, an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest. Indian River County School District is one of 11 districts still under federal supervision.
The case here began in 1964, when Denise Sharpton and her husband, parents of a student in the district, brought suit in federal court, alleging separate and inferior schools had been created for black students in the county. U.S. District Court Judge C. Clyde Atkins agreed and issued a desegregation order in 1967. The order was amended in 1994, naming the NAACP as the plaintiff instead of the parents, in addition to revising some of the requirements. Therefore, the NAACP and the school board must resolve the issues that still exist, Brown said.
There are two primary requirements in the order. The district was ordered to hire black teachers at an accelerated rate – 20 percent to 40 percent of new teachers to be African Americans – until the ratio matches the current 17 percent black student population.
The district was also ordered to close the black-student achievement gap.
Today, nearly 50 years after the federal court first mandated change, only 6 percent of the district’s teachers are black, according to Brown.
At the July 26 meeting, Rendell said only 53 percent of African American seniors graduated in 2016 compared to an 81 percent graduation rate for students overall.
Brown said only 22 percent of African American students are performing at grade level.
Rendell has been meeting monthly with the NAACP but Brown said his group didn’t find out until they did their own research that Husch Blackwell was a law firm.
“We told Rendell we didn’t want [an outside law firm],” Brown said. “Why spend all this money when everybody knows that unless the two parties agree you cannot get to unitary status?” (A school district is said to be unitary “when it has eliminated the effects of past segregation to the extent practicable. When courts declare a school system unitary, the court system no longer supervises the school system’s student assignment and other decisions.”)
Husch Blackwell’s price started low and kept going up. The original estimate for the study was $75,000, to be completed by April. The firm later upped its price to $150,000, claiming the district’s delay in providing information slowed progress.
“There was a lot of communication back and forth between our staff and the firm, clarifying and analyzing information,” Rendell said. “Since it took so long to complete the report, the cost increased.”
About 30 concerned community members came to the meeting despite the agenda-item cancellation. Several people pointed out the lawyers work for the board, not the other way around, blaming the board for withholding the study paid for with tax dollars under the guise of legal confidentiality.
Others said claims about the need for legal confidentiality were just an excuse, since the 1967 order and 1994 amended order were the end result of litigation. “It’s already been litigated,” Greg Stewart pointed out. “What we want to know is when and how you will comply.”