Despite School Board hoopla, little progress here on 1960s federal desegregation order

When the School Board last month heralded a partial agreement with the local NAACP as a major step to getting out from under a federal desegregation order that has lingered over the county since civil rights days, the Press Journal reported it as a clearing of the path that could have Indian River County free of this half-century-old stigma in just three more years.

The NAACP last week, however, had a somewhat less euphoric assessment of the outcome of the court-ordered mediation.  “We got what we paid for,” said Dr. Jacqueline Warrior, NAACP education chairperson. Which is to say, since the organization had pro bono legal representation – nothing.

The president of the local branch of the NAACP, Anthony Brown, said he agonized over signing the agreement but felt he had no other recourse. If he didn’t sign, then the NAACP would have had to hire a new lawyer to represent them in federal court, Brown said.  “We have no money for a lawyer.”

The mediation agreement, which still must be ratified by U.S. District Judge Kathleen Williams, frees the School Board from three areas of court oversight. Under the agreement, the court will no longer oversee integration of school facilities, the ratio of black non-teaching staff to white, and the ratio of black administrators to white administrators.

The court, however, would nominally retain oversight over closing the academic achievement gap between black and white students, mentoring of new teachers, recruitment of black teachers, the ratio of black students in individual schools, the ratio of black students on buses, and the ratio of black students participating in extracurricular activities.

But the agreement is not likely to make much difference one way or another. The School Board has not been complying with the reporting terms of the desegregation order anyway, and the court has not been enforcing it.

The School Board was supposed to make regular reports to the court about conditions in the district, but Warrior says there is not a shred of evidence it did – at least in recent years – and a document request filed by Vero Beach 32963 seeking reports to the federal court produced nothing.

The mediation agreement further dissolves the African American Achievement Plan Committee, replacing it with an Equity Committee, thereby reducing NAACP oversight of the desegregation process, according to Warrior.

The equity committee will “maintain a high level of accountability to the School Board and citizenry in ensuring compliance with the remaining requirements to the August 2018 order and facilitating the achievement of full unitary status,” according to the agreement. Full unitary status means a complete lifting of court oversight.

Warrior said, however, “the equity committee adds another administrative layer the NAACP must go through to give input. It dilutes the NAACP’s ability to intervene on behalf of our students.”

There will be five members on the committee, two unpaid volunteers appointed by the NAACP, two district staff members and one unpaid volunteer member appointed by the four members.

When the committee wants information, members must first agree what data or documents should be requested, Warrior was told, and then it’s up to the School District to grant or deny the request. “I’ve had trouble getting data and information in the past. Requiring a quorum will make it worse.”

The agreement repeatedly states the equity committee can only make recommendations “in an advisory capacity,” and has no power to mandate policy.

Each year, the equity committee will hold a public meeting to present to the School Board and NAACP areas eligible to be lifted from court oversight, with the goal of removal of all court oversight within three years.

The NAACP’s Brown said he signed this agreement “because I feared the court outcome.” But, he added, after we get three new School Board members in the fall elections, “maybe we can sit down and have a real discussion.”

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