Schools accept federal offer to end 39 years of oversight|[08/01/08]

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 1, 2008

The Vicksburg Warren School District is no longer under federal court oversight that began with a desegregation court order in 1969.

“I understand walking on the other side of the street and having to sit in the back of the bus,” said District 3 Trustee Betty Tolliver, “and those things come to play in the mind when all this stuff is brought up. But things are better. Things still aren’t perfect, but nowhere is perfect.”

The trustees voted unanimously Thursday to accept the offer of the U.S. Department of Justice to end its oversight role.

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“This will not change anything,” Superintendent James Price said. “Zones will not change; the way we do business will not change. The only difference is that we will not be considered under the constant jurisdiction of the court.”

Across the South, the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision of the U.S. Supreme Court led to lawsuits and consent decrees to end the era when “separate but equal” public education was allowed. As districts drew attendance lines to achieve racial balance, federal officials, via court orders or by agreement, were given what amounted to a veto over school attendance plans developed by local boards. In the decades since, some districts have asked to be released from the process, which has become a paperwork exercise.

“We did not petition to do this,” Price said. “They approached us and, basically, said there was no reason for us to continue to be under their jurisdiction because we complied with all the rules and regulations they set down.”

The VWSD came under a revised order in 1987 with the consolidation of the Vicksburg Municipal Separate School District and the Warren County Public Schools. While the city schools previously operated under the desegregation plan, the county schools had yet to become a part of it. The newly combined district voluntarily agreed to take part in the plan.

In 1986, the year preceding the consolidation, city schools enrolled 4,143 students, 84 percent of whom were black. That same year, county schools enrolled

6,247 students, 72 percent of whom were white. Since consolidation, all schools in the district have been racially balanced to mirror the overall county demographic, which is close to a 50-50 black-white split. The district’s elected trustee board is also racially balanced and includes Tolliver and District 2 Trustee Zelmarine Murphy, who are black.

The Justice Department approved new zones for the district that took effect in 1988 and has been monitoring changes made in the district since. Oversight has also provided immunity of sorts in that racial balances set by the district have had a federal stamp of approval.

“My particular opinion is that this hasn’t been a bad thing,” said attorney for the district Jim Chaney. “One benefit has been that no one could sue us for civil rights problems because we were under the jurisdiction of the Justice Department. I recommended that we stay under the jurisdiction as long as possible. But, now, they’ve come to us and said,