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School desegregation accord reached in Mississippi district

A Mississippi Delta school district has agreed to a settlement in a long-running desegregation lawsuit, a lawyer said Monday evening.

The Cleveland school board voted unanimously to accept a settlement, district lawyer Jamie Jacks said.

The 3,500-student district had originally sought to maintain historically black and white high schools, but U.S. District Judge Debra Brown ruled in May that such a plan maintained illegal vestiges of segregation, agreeing with the U.S. Justice Department and private plaintiffs who both demanded one high school.

Under the agreement, the district will maintain one high school on the campus of historically white Cleveland High School and Margaret Green Junior High School and one school for seventh- and eighth-graders at the site of historically black East Side High School.

Sixth-graders, most of whom now attend Margaret Green or a separate middle school, will now stay at elementary schools. Some sixth-graders who already attend magnet elementary schools will remain at those schools.

The change in sixth-grade configuration is the only major difference from Brown’s order. Jacks said the district feared it wouldn’t have enough room for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders on the current East Side campus.

The district had appealed Brown’s ruling to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and won a stay earlier this month that had thrown into question whether the high schools would merge after this school year. But Cleveland had gone ahead with planning for a merger, deciding to call both the new high school and the new junior high Cleveland Central and adopting new colors and a new mascot.

The district had also, in recent days, named new principals for both the high school and the junior high school. It was after meeting with them Friday that the district decided to move ahead with a settlement, Jacks said.

“They were very confident in moving the schools forward, and I think the board has a lot of confidence in them,” she said. Jacks said the decision relieves the uncertainty of how the appeals court might rule, as well as the possibility that it might order a merger to go forward on a short timeline. Some Mississippi school districts, when ordered to desegregate immediately in 1969, merged schools over Christmas break, opening in new configurations in January 1970 for the second half of the school year.

Cleveland had long been subject to its own desegregation order in the 52-year-old court case. But the issue had been dormant until private plaintiffs and then the Justice Department intervened, seeking to consolidate middle and high schools. Historically, African-American residents were concentrated on Cleveland’s east side. The west side, where Cleveland High School and Margaret Green Junior High School are, had white residents.

Cleveland High now has a plurality of white students and Margaret Green is majority black, according to state figures. All but one student was black at East Side last year, as were all but two at D.M. Smith. Overall, two-thirds of the district’s students are black, and 29 percent are white. The rest are Asian or Hispanic.

The district was willing to consolidate middle schools but argued for preserving two high schools, saying such a plan was less likely to prompt white flight. Brown rejected those arguments, saying the district hadn’t proved that it could induce white students to enroll at East Side in any significant numbers.

Lawyers for the Department of Justice and private plaintiffs didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment Monday evening.

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