Lowndes schools make another bid for unitary status


Garthia Elena Burnett



Caledonia schools are growing and have been, consistently, for years. 


The simple solution was to add 11 classrooms. But even the simplest of solutions isn''t as simple as it could be. The county school board had to petition the U.S. Department of Justice before getting the green light for the project. The extra step slowed the project down by months. 


"It would have expedited this to where we could have had these classrooms done at the beginning of the school year," Lowndes County Superintendent of Education Mike Halford said. 


Since a 1970 court judgment declared the district discriminatory on the basis of race, the Justice Department can step in when desegregation of extracurricular activities, transportation, administrative staff assignment, relative quality of education, faculty assignment, facilities and resources or student assignment may be compromised. 


Lowndes County School District remains under the order for facilities but is actively working to be released. A petition was sent to the Justice Department in June; the district awaits its response. 


Last year, the school board delayed its petition for unitary status, the term applied to school districts released from a federal desegregation order. The board agreed to hire a consultant from Mississippi State University to oversee work at the West Lowndes baseball field, which had drainage problems, added grade-appropriate discussions on racial and cultural sensitivity to district''s harassment and discrimination policy and added advanced placement classes at West Lowndes middle and high schools. Now, the board believes it''s time for them to be able to run their own district without Justice Department scrutiny. 


"We''d manage our own district," Halford said of attaining unitary status. "You don''t have to worry about getting permission for this, that and the other. You get from under the watchful eye of Big Brother. 


"The purpose of the desegregation order was to make sure a quality education was afforded for every student, and we''re doing that," he added. "We''re meeting every requirement of the Justice Department and exceeding that, for every child in this district." 


"If we gain unitary status on facilities, it basically means that if facilities are needed, you would hire your architect, he''d make a presentation to the board and they''d vote it up or down," school board attorney Jeff Smith said. "There''s an extra step now. All the facilities'' adjustment plans have to be sent to the Justice Department and pre-cleared." 


The district has waited anywhere from 13 to 18 months for the go-ahead from the DOJ, he noted. 


In the mid- to late-1960s, school districts across the South were sued for discrimination and given desegregation orders, which put them under the scrutiny of the Justice Department. Lowndes County schools and about 90 percent of the 152 school districts in Mississippi still operate under federal desegregation orders. Columbus Municipal School District was released from its order in 2007. 


"We are proud that we were able to achieve unitary status, and I think that makes a great statement about our system," said Dr. Del Phillips, superintendent of Columbus schools. "And we certainly have been able to do some innovative structural changes within the system after we obtained unitary status." 


Smith sees more school districts in recent months working toward unitary status. 


"There''s probably about 40 (school districts) that are in the process of getting out from under it," said Smith, who is also state representative for District 39. 


"I think you''ll see various districts requesting to come from under those rulings, based on the needs of the districts and whether they met the requirements outlined," said Judy Couey, superintendent of education for Starkville schools. 


Starkville School District currently is not petitioning for unitary status. Couey said the desegregation order hasn''t been a hindrance, despite recent improvement and expansion projects, paid for as part of a $26 million bond issue.




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