Augusta lawyers work to lift schools court order

Ben Allen was a third-grader at John M. Tutt Middle School in 1962 when he noticed things were different.

 

Though he lived in Terrace Manor subdivision, he was bused across town and past elementary schools serving white children to get to Tutt, with other black children.

"No one really said much about the dual school system," Allen said. "Back then, that's just the way it was."

Around the time Allen graduated from Glenn Hills High School, a U.S. district judge acted on a lawsuit brought against the school system eight years earlier by a local black family. In 1972, the court ordered that all Richmond County public schools desegregate, and it handed down a list of six requirements to be met.

After he finished law school, Allen took over the case in 1986 to represent the Acree family, the plaintiffs. Allen has worked with school board attorney Pete Fletcher, who has handled the case since 1972, to oversee the progress of desegregation.

The court order is still on the district's books almost 40 years later. Both attorneys are working to tie up loose ends and possibly lift the order, closing a chapter from the county's dark past.

Allen and Fletcher recently agreed to meet once a month for the next year to work on the components of the court order that have not been met. Both agree that two main parts need to be addressed, but because of the sensitivity of the issue, it won't be easy to let the order go.

"There's been discussion about how do we bring to an end a lawsuit that's been with us seemingly forever," Allen said. "Sometimes, it's easier to begin something than to bring it to an end. The question is, how do we bring it to an end in such a fashion that you don't create fear in the community?"

Of the six original components, both Allen and Fletcher agree that all but two remain unfulfilled: having diversity in classified staff, such as janitors and nutrition specialists, and improving student achievement.

Some argue that still having the court order hurts the county's image.

While blacks used to be the minority in the district, schools are now 75 percent black and 23 percent white, according a data analysis by ProPublica, a nonprofit organization specializing in investigative journalism.

The school board is made up of five blacks and five whites, and the district's past three superintendents have been black.

"We've done everything the court said to do," board member Frank Dolan said. "All the schools are equal. They are all in good condition. They all have good gyms; they all have good stuff. Some of them may need some work, but there's not 100 points between them."

Despite this equality, Dolan said, the court order might give businesses the impression that the county still runs a segregated school system and discourage new industries from choosing Augusta.

To put the order to rest, the remaining changes might be complicated. Nationwide, almost 200 school districts still have desegregation orders imposed by the U.S. Justice Department, including Columbia County.

Allen and Fletcher would have to file a joint motion in court to end the order, but they would have to prove to a judge that the requirements have been fulfilled.

Though the district's classified workers are mostly black, Fletcher said that might just be a reflection of the school's communities. It would almost require bringing white workers from across town to fill positions just to create diversity, he said.

"This type of lawsuit is complicated because it involves the community and their feelings," Fletcher said.

As far as student achievement, Allen said Richmond County schools need to improve to show the district is fair for all.

With 37 of 55 schools not making federal adequate yearly progress and 20 schools on the state's "needs improvement" list, that issue might be bigger than race.

"This system is not a bad system," Allen said. "That doesn't mean there's things that don't need to be done, but that's not just for black students. It's more than race. It's the education of our children. When I say 'our children,' I'm talking about all children that walk through these halls."

The next 12 months will be the most consistent attention the order has received in years. In the past, the attorneys might have met only a few times a year, and the order is not brought up often before board members.

Given Richmond County's past and undeniable racial tensions today, the order almost ensures the district won't return to inequity, said school board Vice President Venus Cain.

"If Augusta was truly a progressive city and wanted to see our city change, I'd say let it go," Cain said. "But until I can see Augusta as a whole being a progressive city and people working together to make things equal, I wouldn't be comfortable."

Both Allen and Fletcher agree that it's possible to get the order lifted. Cain agrees to an extent, but sees that day as still being far off.

"In my lifetime, I don't see it happening," Cain said. "I think I could die and come back to life twice, and things still wouldn't be different."

Desegregation Order

Original changes required of the school system in Acree v. The County Board of Education of Richmond County

-- Equal facilities

-- Equal books/supplies

-- Faculty that represents the community

-- Classified staff that represents the community

-- Transportation may not be more of a burden for any group of students than another

-- All schools must have equal extra curricular activities

Desegregation Order: Elementary Schools (.pdf)
Desegregation Order: Magnet Schools (.pdf)
Desegregation Order: Secondary Schools (.pdf)
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