PAISD officially desegregated after 37 years in court

Marilyn Tennissen Aug. 30, 2007, 6:00am

U.S. District Judge Thad Heartfield

It has taken almost 40 years, but the Port Arthur Independent School District is now officially desegregated.

On Aug. 27, U.S. District Judge Thad Heartfield finally terminated the federal court's jurisdiction over the school district.

The United States filed a lawsuit in the Eastern District of Texas, Beaumont Division, against the district on Aug. 7, 1970, to desegregate the Port Arthur schools. On Sept. 15, 1970, the federal court entered an order requiring the district to "develop and maintain a unitary school system" and to implement a desegregation plan.

Following additional litigation, the parties reached a settlement in 1981 that was approved by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. The settlement was entered as an order on March 2, 1982.

But in January 2001, the federal court notified PAISD that it had found several issues of non-compliance with the 1982 order. The district and the court then negotiated a Consent Decree in which PAISD admitted it had failed to comply with the terms of the order and with applicable desegregation standards.

The 2001 Consent Decree provided for the consolidation of the high schools in the district. At that time, Port Arthur had three high schools: Lincoln High School, with a predominantly black student population; Thomas Jefferson High School, with a predominantly white population; and Stephen F. Austin High School, located in a rural area of town.

In 2002, PAISD consolidated the three schools into Memorial High School, located on the former Thomas Jefferson campus. The school pledged to the community that it would continue the "memory" and legacy of the old schools.

The 2001 Consent Decree also required PAISD to submit a plan for the consolidation of elementary and middle schools and implement new policies for faculty and staff assignments.

By February 2003, the district felt it had fulfilled its requirements and moved for a declaration of unitary status. The United States opposed the motion on the grounds that the district had failed to comply with the Consent Decree and with previous desegregation orders in a reasonable period of time and contended that PAISD had failed to eliminate vestiges of the prior dual system in the areas of student and faculty assignment.

After the federal court filed its opposition, the district and the court began negotiations. On May 7, 2003, a Consent Order and Settlement Agreement specified several actions that PAISD was required to take in the areas of elementary and middle school assignment, transfer policies and staff and faculty assignment. The actions were to begin with the 2003-2004 school year.

The U.S. court did agree that the district had eliminated the vestiges of the prior dual system in the areas of transportation, facilities and extracurricular activities.

The court, however, maintained judicial supervision of the district to ensure that PAISD completed all the actions identified in the Consent Order and refrained from taking any actions that would have the "effect of reversing the progress it has made in desegregating the school system."

The Consent Order provided that if after July 2005, the district had taken all required actions it could move to dismiss the case without objection from the federal court.

PAISD filed a motion for declaration of unitary status on Jan. 18, 2007, and the United States began to take discovery on the district's compliance with the Consent Order. After reviewing documents and information produced in response to its discovery requests, the federal court filed a memorandum in opposition to PAISD's motion on May 10, 2007.

The United States' opposition was based on the district's apparent non-compliance with provisions of the Consent Order pertaining to the majority-to-minority transfer program, the granting of hardship transfers and faculty assignments.

But the district was able to produce more evidence pertinent to the court's objections at an evidentiary hearing on June 12. After the hearing, the district agreed to further publicize the majority-to-minority transfer program for the 2007-2008 school year.
On Aug. 22, the parties filed a Joint Post-Trial Brief, which advised the court that the district had satisfied its obligations. It further states that on the basis of the new evidence introduced, the district had demonstrated its substantial compliance with the Consent Order and "has satisfied all other legal standards for a declaration of unitary status."

Judge Heartfield wrote Monday, Aug. 27, that the district had complied with the court's desegregation order.

"The Court concludes that the Port Arthur Independent School District has met the legal standards for a declaration of unitary status, and that it is entitled to dismissal of this action," Heartfield wrote in the Agreed Order of Unitary Status. "Accordingly, it is hereby ordered that all prior injunctions in this case are dissolved, jurisdiction is terminated and this case is dismissed with prejudice."

According to the Legal Analysis section of the Agreed Order, Heartfield wrote that "the goal of a school desegregation case is to convert promptly a de jure segregated school system to a system without 'white' schools or 'black' schools, but just schools."

Case No. 1:70-CV-06820-TH

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