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Rival plans filed to end Cleveland schools federal oversight

schoolCLEVELAND — Local school officials and the Justice Department have filed with a Mississippi federal court competing plans to desegregate the Cleveland, Miss., school system.

The Cleveland school district is seeking to come out from under federal oversight that has been in place since 1965, when plaintiffs sued the Bolivar County school system, including Cleveland, to end white-only and black-only schools.

In documents filed this past week in U.S. District Court in Greenville, the school district and the Justice Department continue to pursue legal arguments in which the two sides have been embroiled since 2011, when the Cleveland system petitioned the court to remove it from federal oversight.

In its new filing, the Justice Department proposes a school consolidation plan that would result in a single grade structure in the Cleveland School District, in which all students in grades 6-12 would attend one middle school and one high school beginning in the 2016-2017 school year.

“This plan, when fully implemented, would result in the immediate desegregation of the district’s schools serving grades 6-12, as each of those schools would reflect the district-wide student enrollment demographics,” wrote Acting Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta for the Civil Rights Division.

The Cleveland School Board offered two proposals to the court.

“One supports open enrollment with some additional programming … a second plan, or Plan B, calls for additional magnet programming in the district,” Jamie Jacks, attorney for the district, told The Bolivar Commercial.

In Cleveland, two middle schools and two high schools have co-existed for decades. One set is all black; the other, school officials say, is well-balanced for race.

In 2012, the school district filed a proposal to desegregate East Side High School and D.M. Smith Middle School. The school system wanted to introduce magnet programs at both schools to help attract white students from Cleveland High School and Margaret Green Jr. High School.

Magnet schools have a specific theme or mission that drives their curriculum, such as fine arts or science. Magnet schools still must be racially balanced.

Instead, U.S. District Judge Glen H. Davidson ordered the Cleveland schools to open the two high schools and two middle schools to all students and drop attendance zones defined as one on each side of the railroad tracks that split the town. The plan was never implemented.

Davidson is no longer assigned to the case, which has been handed to U.S. District Judge Debra M. Brown.

Both sides have asked Brown for a hearing on the plans.

Legal battles over school desegregation have persisted since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. In the 1960s, school districts across the South were sued and given desegregation orders, which put them under Justice Department scrutiny. More than a dozen school systems in Mississippi have petitioned federal courts to come out from under such orders.

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About Ross Reily

Ross Reily is editor of the Mississippi Business Journal. He is a husband to an amazing wife, dad to 3 crazy kids and 2 dogs. He is also a fan of the Delta State Fighting Okra and the Boston Red Sox.

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