Ruling on race and schools expected to have no effect here|[07/05/07]

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 5, 2007

Vicksburg Warren School District officials said last week’s Supreme Court decision that race cannot be used as the only factor to maintain school diversity will have no effect here.

The reason, explained Superintendent James Price, is that the district still operates under a federal consent decree first established nearly 40 years ago when schools were all-white or all-black.

&#8220I don’t think it’s good or bad,” Price said of the ruling. But &#8220I think it’ll have very little impact on us locally. We are still operating under the Justice Department orders.”

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Those orders require the district to submit zoning changes and enrollment numbers to federal authorities to assure the district’s schools are fully integrated, reflecting the area’s nearly even split in racial population.

The two cases that prompted the decision – one filed in Seattle, the other in Kentucky – had been pending for more than a year. Both alleged that guidelines in those districts that limited transfers between schools or determined admission to others solely based on race were unconstitutional.

Critics say the ruling trumps the advances made possible by the court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that declared separate but equal schools were unconstitutional.

Here, Vicksburg schools agreed to the desegregation order in 1970. The county school system agreed to accept the conditions as part of the merger of Warren County Public Schools and the Vicksburg Municipal Separate School District in 1986.

Attendance zones created at that time remain in use, although lifted during a &#8220school choice” period for elementaries. He said attendance zones need periodic modification to reflect population changes. &#8220Anything we do along those lines, the justice department has to approve,” Price said.

Many school districts have petitioned for release from federal oversight, but Price said while that notion has been floated here, it gained no traction. &#8220I have not made any requests and there’s no reason to make one that I’m aware of,” he said.

The order has never been violated and the district has never been told it was not in compliance. &#8220They have never failed to approve anything we asked for that I’m aware of,” he said.

Zelmarine Murphy, the longest-serving member of the district’s board of trustees, said changes brought about by the consent decree have been effective. &#8220We have come a long way, but we’re not where we need to be,” Murphy said. &#8220Time has allowed us to see some dramatic changes.

&#8220We have had some problems,” in the past said Murphy, but &#8220I think basically here in Vicksburg parents are fairly satisfied” with school demographics.

Price also pointed out that the federal order protects the district from lawsuits alleging improper racial balance, because the district’s plans and actions already have federal approval.

But even without federal oversight said Price, &#8220I think it’s impossible for us to go back to where we were in the 1960s,” he said. &#8220There is no formal segregation anymore. It’ll never be like it was because people will not tolerate the same circumstances,” he said.

Price said the district could be released from the federal guidelines at any time and the district will be fine. &#8220My position is that we as a community should educate our young people,” he said. &#8220Nobody knows our strengths and weaknesses better than we do.”