With all the changes over 40 years in Richmond County schools, at least one thing has remained.
A desegregation order, established in 1972, remains on the books and affects areas ranging from transportation to hiring practices.
Although the racial balance of the city’s schools has shifted and most requirements of the order have been met, the process to remove it is more complex than black and white.
“These things are hugely complicated,” said Mike Dishman, a professor of educational policy and governance at Kennesaw State University. “People can view the order and say if we are (without it), you can get rid of the desegregation order so you can resegregate the schools – particularly the folks that remember the dark days when the desegregation order had to be put in place.”
Attorneys on both sides of Richmond County’s order met late last month to discuss the issue but are unsure when it can be resolved. School board attorney Pete Fletcher and the plaintiff’s attorney, Ben Allen, agree that the district has met most requirements but that there is still work to be done.
“The ultimate goal is to get it lifted,” Allen said. “This isn’t something that needs to go on forever. But change is hard for everybody.”
The lawsuit, Acree v. The County Board of Education of Richmond County, resulted in the order that outlined six standards the district had to meet.
Fletcher said he believes that, except for increasing student achievement and having classified staff, such as janitors and nutrition specialists, that represent the community, the requirements have been met.
In a recent interview, Allen would not discuss which elements of the order he believes are still unfinished. In 2011, however, he told The Augusta Chronicle that he agreed with Fletcher on the progress.
About 75 school districts in Georgia, including Columbia County, have desegregation orders still open. Columbia County Deputy Superintendent Sandra Carraway said her district has no intention of working to relieve the order.
The suit has been open since 1969, and though she believes officials have met the requirements for a desegregated system, Carraway said that having the order on the books does no harm and that the legal costs of releasing it would be a waste of funds.
Fletcher said when the attorneys are ready to petition the court to lift Richmond County’s order, it can be carried out several ways.
The attorneys could agree that all requirements have been met and present evidence to a judge to prove it. Or the attorneys could agree on what is left to be accomplished and present a judge with an outline on how those changes will be made.
“Even if the plaintiffs and school board reach an agreement, the court still has to hear evidence,” Fletcher said. “They can’t just accept a settlement.”
In addressing classified staff, attorneys must show that the employees represent the racial makeup of the community. In Augusta, blacks make up about 55 percent of the population but 72 percent of non-teaching school staff.
However, Dishman said the makeup of the staff is not as important as the diversity of the applicant pools and the efforts of the district to recruit a diverse workforce.
“In a system that’s almost entirely African American children, there’s going to be very little that a school district would do that would resegregate the school system.”
Demographics of the community have shifted drastically since the desegregation order was filed in 1972. The school system is now 73 percent black and 20 percent white; the school board members are evenly split by race; and the superintendent is the third consecutive black man to lead the district. But board member Barbara Pulliam said distrust still exists.
She said community members often still refer to schools as black or white, which can lead to some politics with the staff.
“Some of the community will get riled up if a black principal is at a certain school,” Pulliam said. “And it’s both ways. I think people would get riled up if there was a white principal at Laney,” regarding Lucy C. Laney Comprehensive High School.
Pulliam said the order acts as a safeguard for some people to ensure that equality won’t slip away. At the same time, she said, the community can’t ignore the progress the district has made.
To improve facilities for all students, the district spent millions of dollars in Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax funds to rebuild deteriorating schools and renovate gyms and classrooms.
But some of the fear comes from things that are intangible, Pulliam said.
“There’s still discomfort, and Augusta has a lot of that,” she said. “In Augusta, it’s like you’re living in the ’60s. They have not come the distance they should be at this point in time.”
Board member Frank Dolan said the desegregation order advertises racial disharmony to the business world and discourages companies from locating in the city.
“Why would an employer come to a place that has an overlying desegregation order still in place?” Dolan said. “That would not be an attractive place to come to.”
Dishman said that it is not uncommon for school districts to have pending orders but that they can pose challenges to educational advances.
Desegregation orders prevent districts from doing anything to resegregate schools. But with school choice, such as magnet schools with a focus on a specific career field, it’s often difficult to get a balanced racial ratio, Dishman said.
Because of the preventive nature of the orders and the accountability given to districts, it’s not an easy burden to shake.
“It’s so easy to tell the lawyers ‘You should just do X,’ ” Dishman said. “Telling the lawyers you should just do X is like telling the doctor ‘Oh, they have cancer. You should just cure it.’ ”