Teachers in Louisiana have found themselves on the frontlines of austerity.
First, in an unprecedented vote, the Jefferson Parish School Board voted 8–1 to close seven campuses, four of them traditional elementary schools and the rest alternative programs for students struggling academically.
The board issued more bad news when it announced it was dropping plans to add an art instruction wing at Lincoln Elementary School for the Arts due to cost concerns.
Construction of the wing is a hot-button issue in the area because the proposal to convert Lincoln into a magnet school that would draw students from across the parish was a result of the deliberations leading up to the system’s settling a forty-seven-year-old desegregation lawsuit last year.
NOLA.com interviewed Lena Vern Dandridge, whose father sued to integrate Jefferson Parish public schools in 1964.
“At the time I didn’t pay much attention to it. I was a kid, I was just there to learn,” said Dandridge, who now goes by Dandridge-Houston. “Looking back on it, it wasn’t just education from textbooks. It was cultural.”
Forty-three years later, her name is still on the federal court docket.
In August of last year, US District Judge Kurt Engelhart noted that the Jefferson Parish School Board and lawyers for the plaintiffs in the Dandridge desegregation case had reached an agreement to end the litigation.
During the debate over how to “improve” school policies, the judge proposed several strategies, including firing teachers (called a “staffing shuffle” by NOLA.com) and the “reconstitution of four elementary schools into specialized magnets.”
By tossing out plans to add the art instruction wing, the board was, in essence, destroying one of the key tactics for desegregating schools, flawed as that original strategy might have been.
The Southern Poverty Law Center filed not one, but two, civil rights complaints against the board.
In the first complaint, SPLC alleged that the school system discriminates against black and disabled students. Part of the evidence presented by SPLC was comments made on Twitter by Mark Traina, a school psychologist in Louisiana.
“Young black thugs” need to be “put down like the dogs they are,” Traina tweeted.
SPLC also claims African-American students are being unfairly subjected to arrests and seizures. The complaint outlined what the center calls a widespread and disproportionate number of arrests of black students for minor school disciplinary matters.
SPLC cited the fact that African-American youth comprise 46 percent of the student population yet 76 percent of all school-based arrests.
To offer only a handful of examples:
A ninth-grade boy was arrested and subjected to racially charged language after violating the school’s cellphone policy; another ninth-grader was arrested and subjected to racially offensive language because he was in the hall without a pass (even though he had permission from a teacher to leave class and call his mother), resulting in the youth being restrained, placed in a patrol car and taken to an adult jail where he was held overnight; and another ninth-grade girl was arrested, searched and subjected to racially offensive language for skipping class.
And the list goes on.
Most recently, the board voted to strip teachers of their contract after June 30 and begin negotiations anew with a blank slate. During the decision, teachers sat in the meeting room holding signs that read “Protect Our Schools From Bad Decisions,” “No Contract = Chaos In My Classroom” and “Dictatorship vs. Negotiation.”
“This school system is in chaos,” Meladie Munch, president of the Jefferson Federation of Teachers, told the board prior to the vote. “And if you don’t believe me, go talk to people in the community. Total chaos. Don’t do this to your teachers because they are the rock of this school system.”
Now, the plaintiffs in the Dandridge school segregation lawsuit are back, charging that the school closures and scrapping of construction plans are in violation of their settlement.
Four of the closures take place in mostly black neighborhoods and will displace 1,071 black students and 224 white students.
Additionally, thousands of students will be affected by transfers to relieve overcrowding in their schools, and officials admit they’re struggling to find suitable receiving campuses for students in higher grades.
“In the absence of compelling reasons, school closures shall not disproportionately affect one racial group as opposed to another racial group,” the August 2011 settlement reads.
School Board attorney Michael Fanning told NOLA.com that he received the complaint, but had not yet formulated an answer.
“We’re just going to review it,” he said. “We have to look at it and see what the allegations are.”
Cedric Floyd, the only African-American member of the board, called the closure plans an “injustice” during a meeting in May, and said they disproportionally impact black students.
Yvetta Chesser, a speaker in the audience and resident of the Bunche Village neighbourhood, agreed with Floyd, saying Bunche was chosen because it was considered to be a “throwaway school.”
Late Wednesday, about 100 teachers and other protesters waited outdoors to confront board members as they left the building.
Activists booed and shouted, “Shame on you” and “We won’t forget” at board member Michael Delesdernier, NOLA.com reports.
At one point, the crowd gathered around the cars of board President Mark Jacobs and Acting Superintendent James Meza, and system officials and deputies had to come help clear the way so they could leave.
But protesters cheered and applauded three board members: Cedric Floyd, Etta Licciardi and Ray St. Pierre, who voted in the minority to keep some parts of the teachers’ contracts.
Jacobs has publicly said the erasion of contracts will not interrupt pay and benefits, but teachers and union officials believe the move is a thinly veiled tactic to break the union and devalue teachers.