Only a decade after winning release from desegregation decrees, Nashville's school officials were back in federal court this week facing accusations they are discriminating against black children.
The NAACP sued to overturn the city's new student rezoning plan, which ended the busing of hundreds of inner-city black children to the white suburbs. The first hearing Tuesday was an ignominious beginning for the defendants.
A half-dozen Metro lawyers were forced to appear before U.S. District Judge William Haynes to try to explain why, in obvious violation of state law, one inner-city school still lacks textbooks three weeks after students have returned. The NAACP's lawyer, Larry Woods, took full advantage of the media attention.
"The Metro school board doesn't do anything but tell lies about this," Woods declared. "They want black children kept in North Nashville where white people don't have to see them or think about them."
A little background here is in order, as if anyone could have forgotten this all so quickly. A year ago, the school board tore apart the city by voting 5-4 to rezone students, mostly to end the busing of black children from North Nashville to Hillwood and Hillsboro. Officials hailed the plan as a return to neighborhood schools. But the NAACP immediately decried it as racist plot to please suburban white parents. To try to placate black parents, the board promised to spend $6 million a year to improve schools in the Pearl-Cohn cluster and to pay teachers more.
The NAACP's class-action lawsuit, though a long time coming, made quite an impact right away. Not the usual dry legal document, it tells the compelling story of the sixth-grade daughter of Frances and Jeffrey Spurlock. She was denied enrollment at mostly white Bellevue Middle School, where she was an honor student, and forced to attend North Nashville's John Early Middle School instead.
According to the lawsuit, the girl "has been bullied, harassed, threatened and physically challenged by unsupervised students at John Early to the point where this former 5th grade honor student cries almost every day about school and cannot use the rest room at John Early because of the vicious threats against her."
What's more—incredibly, even as school officials are promising millions of dollars in new resources for North Nashville schools—John Early still lacks textbooks for students. State law requires these for all Tennessee public school students from the first day of classes.
"The truth of what is happening at John Early Middle School exposes the Nashville rezoning plan as the segregationist fraud that it is," the lawsuit states. "The failure of the defendants to take action to provide necessary and critically important school books at John Early Middle School is further evidence of their wrongful and illegal intent to re-segregate the Nashville schools....
"It is 2009 in America and the Nashville school system defendants have not seen fit to provide textbooks to majority black school students in North Nashville under this segregationist rezoning plan."
At Tuesday's initial hearing, Woods asked the judge to reassign the Spurlock girl to Bellevue Middle School and to order Metro to deliver textbooks to John Early immediately.
If the city is spending $6 million a year to improve inner-city schools, "then why don't we have textbooks for the sixth grade at John Early," Woods demanded. "Where's the extra resources they promised? They can't even get schoolbooks into North Nashville.
"I don't understand why every school board member didn't back their cars up to the Tennessee state schoolbook warehouse and deliver these books to these schools already."
Haynes granted both of the NAACP's demands after an hour-long hearing in which Metro lawyers tried to dismiss the situation as an unfortunate yet commonplace snafu. Metro lawyer Jim Charles blamed John Early's principal.
"She didn't order enough books," he told the judge, adding later, "she didn't order them in a timely fashion."
He insisted Metro could deliver textbooks to the school by Friday. "Tonight would be a lot better," Woods snapped.
Judge Haynes was nonplussed. "Where is the book depository?" Haynes asked. "You mean you can't get a bus to go out there or a car or a van to go out and get these books?" He then ordered the textbooks brought to the school within 24 hours.
"With or without a rezoning plan, our students—no matter what part of town they live in—should be provided the resources they need from day one," said Mayor Karl Dean, in a comment released by his press secretary Janel Lacy. "I am more than willing to work with Dr. Register and the school board to get this done."
The meat of the lawsuit—that the school board, acting in cahoots with the Chamber of Commerce, conspired to consign black children to substandard schools to please suburban whites—will be heard later. The case has been assigned to a new judge, Haynes told the courtroom.
In a final piece of bad news for the school board, that judge is John Nixon—one of the most liberal federal judges ever to sit on the bench in Tennessee.
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