With a stroke of his gavel, U.S. District Court Judge Dudley H. Bowen Jr. could put an end to a chapter that has defined the Richmond County school system for almost 50 years.
On June 17, both sides of a 1964 lawsuit that demanded integration of the education system will present evidence to determine whether enough progress has been made to lift a 1972 desegregation order that resulted from the case.
The question is whether the community is ready for the possibility of functioning without the oversight, which monitors everything from hiring practices to bus routes.
Some school board members say the order is a mark on Augusta’s image, discouraging industry from moving in and misleading outsiders about progress made.
Augusta, however, still wrangles with racial tensions in politics and culture, and some are nervous that without the court order, the schools could slip back into the dark days of segregation.
“In Augusta, people deal too much in color,” board member Barbara Pulliam said. “The trust isn’t there. Both sides see everything in white and black. A white judge, a black judge. A white sheriff, a black sheriff. It’s like living in the ’60s. So I don’t think either side is ready to be without it.”
Pulliam said progress has been made in equality of facilities and transportation and in zoning maps that balance schools racially, but other areas are lacking. There are also people who are satisfied with the racial equality in the schools but see the order as a safeguard to prevent backtracking, she said.
Out of the 109 Georgia school districts that came under desegregation orders decades ago, 75 remain under court order either because they have not met requirements or have not sought relief, according to a 2007 study commissioned by the Georgia Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
The committee’s study, the most recent data available, found that when districts were awarded unitary status, having orders lifted because they achieved desegregation, it did not necessarily result in resegregation. When findings showed patterns of resegregation, it seemed to have more to do with the size of the district or proportion of minority children enrolled.
After Butts County achieved unitary status in 2005, Board of Education Chairman Earnest Battle said little changed. Many residents and school employees didn’t realize the district had been under such an order.
“We saw it as something to get off the policy books,” said Battle, who has served on the board for 28 years. “We’ve been doing great since. In fact, we’ve gotten a few more minority administrators” in the system, which has a 63 percent white and 31 percent black student population.
Roy Nichols, who served as superintendent of Troup County from 1999 to 2004, said there was a group nervous about the school system shaking its desegregation order in 2003, but feelings calmed with public meetings and explanations.
THE DESEGREGATION ORDER puts burdensome requirements on school districts, such as having to report racial balance information and other evidence to the Office of Civil Rights each year, which is one reason Nichols said Troup County felt ready to end the order.
Nichols said that since the oversight ended, the school district still monitors bus routes, school populations and other factors to make sure equality stands as demographics shift in neighborhoods.
“Without the court oversight, there’s the possibility of drift, but we tried to be careful about that,” Nichols said. “There’s real strength in diversity, and we wanted kids to grow up in a diverse environment so we didn’t want to resegregate, and there hasn’t been a problem with that.”
However, Nichols said there were benefits to being under the order. Troup County used to be able to use race when selecting students to attend magnet schools to create a balanced population. When the orders are lifted, schools are not permitted to use race as a factor of admittance. Administrators had to rely on other factors to achieve a fair racial balance, such as socioeconomic status, but because poverty falls along racial lines in Troup County, they had to look to other ways.
“We finally just decided what we had to do was just have faith in the randomness of things and if you’ve got 50 percent of your population that’s African-American, that if you draw out 100 names that 50 of them would be African-American,” he said. The 13,000-student district is almost equally split by whites and blacks.
PETE FLETCHER, THE Richmond County school board’s attorney, and Benjamin Allen, who represents the plaintiffs, will present evidence of why the Augusta order should remain or else it will be lifted, according to Bowen’s order.
The courts look at six factors established through a landmark 1968 case when determining whether a system is desegregated: student assignment, faculty assignment, staff assignment, transportation, extracurricular activities and facilities.
With Richmond County’s demographics having shifted so drastically since the order was established in 1972, school board member Alex Howard said he sees little possibility to backtrack.
The board has five white and five black members, and the past three superintendents have been black men. Millions of dollars have been funneled into renovating and replacing schools across the county, and the district has shifted from majority white to 73 percent black students.
However, as Pulliam pointed out, inequity still exits in some areas. Noncertified positions, such as janitors and nutrition specialists, are made up of 80 percent black workers and 19 percent white while the county’s population has 54 percent black and 39 percent white residents. Teachers are split more evenly with 51 percent black and 47 percent white, according to data provided by the school system.
Howard said while work is left to be done, the progress made in 50 years cannot be ignored and that removing the order will only help in healing racial wounds.
“Back then, they should have put the order down because things were not equal, but the school system has dramatically changed,” Howard said. “A lot of people put a lot of hard work in the last 30, 40 years and that should be recognized.”