Even as he was forced to resign as school superintendent last year, Pedro Garcia exacted his revenge. He wrote a series of scathing memorandums accusing Nashville's white officialdom of conspiring to resegregate schools with a new student assignment plan. According to Garcia, he was intimidated, threatened and finally chased out of town for courageously standing in the way.
But now, as part of the NAACP-supported federal lawsuit his claims sparked, Garcia is refusing to testify in what one black leader describes as a CYA move to salvage his future employment viability. It's forcing the NAACP to scramble to find new witnesses and evidence to make its case that Nashville's rezoning plan is racially motivated and, therefore, illegal.
Lawyers for the NAACP admit Garcia's refusal to cooperate is a setback in their court fight to toss out the plan, which ended the busing of black children from North Nashville to the mostly white suburbs this school year.
"He's a central player. He was the guy," the NAACP's Walter Searcy concedes. "We may be able to get some of what he would have provided by other means. But to the extent that we cannot get it by other means, yes, it hurts us."
Garcia, who now is teaching in Southern California, initially said he would testify but has balked since then, giving unspecified personal reasons to the NAACP. Searcy, chairman of the NAACP's legal redress committee, says he thinks Garcia is afraid any involvement in the lawsuit might damage his job prospects in the education field, as if writing the controversial memos didn't already do that. Garcia himself is refusing to talk to reporters.
"I suspect it really comes down to his next job when all things are said and done," Searcy says.
Already, though, the NAACP has taken a deposition from school board member Kay Simmons that corroborates parts of Garcia's memos, attorneys say. Simmons, a new board member, was a special assistant to Garcia before his ouster.
"She confirms 90 percent of what's in those memos," says Larry Woods, the lawyer for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. "She says, 'Oh yeah, I remember when he wrote the memos. He showed them to me or sent them to me and he told me verbally the same stuff he's written in the memos.' "
Woods says he hopes her testimony will convince U.S. District Judge John Nixon to admit Garcia's memos into evidence. Metro's lawyers are trying to strike the memos as hearsay. When contacted, Simmons declined to comment.
Garcia wrote the memos to board member Ed Kindall, who made them public with Garcia's permission in an attempt to torpedo the rezoning plan just before it was passed on a 5-4 vote a year ago. In its crucial parts, Garcia says school board members were succumbing to political pressure from the Chamber of Commerce and white parents to remove black students from schools in Hillwood.
"Unfortunately, this is a racially charged issue," Garcia wrote. "I took the stand to oppose re-segregating the district. It was the right stand and I would do it again."
Marsha Warden, the board chair at the time, has denied all this in an affidavit in the lawsuit. When the memos became public, she told the Scene, "This is no more racially motivated than the man in the moon. Isn't it really funny that this has just come out right before we're voting. Isn't this really odd?"
Nixon will hear evidence in the case beginning Nov. 3. During a hearing last week, Metro lawyers offered a glimpse into their defense, saying the rezoning plan gives poor children from predominantly black sections of the city the opportunity to succeed in neighborhood schools.
"This case isn't about race," attorney Kevin Klein says. "This case is about opportunity and it's about choice. It's about giving children the opportunity to succeed. It's about giving parents the choice of whether they want their children to go to school close to home or put them on a bus to go elsewhere."
Klein derided the NAACP's claims as "a conspiracy theory" that's "frankly unsupported."
He pointed out that, under certain conditions, North Nashville parents can choose to continue to send their children to Hillwood and Hillsboro schools. Also, the school board voted to spend an additional $5 million a year to improve schools in North Nashville, where almost all the children are poor enough to receive federally subsidized school lunches.
"This is Metro Nashville's chance to take at-risk students and give them an opportunity to succeed," Klein says, "but we've got to give it time, and we've got to stop pretending that busing students is the solution."
The problem with this argument, as the plaintiffs point out, is that it flies in the face of 40 years of studies, beginning with the famous Coleman Report in 1966 and including research here this decade by Vanderbilt's Claire Smrekar and Ellen Goldring. The central conclusion of all the studies: In schools where poverty is concentrated, students learn less. Poor children learn more in middle-class settings away from all the problems they face at home—poor health, hunger and violence, just to name a few.
Even if the NAACP loses its lawsuit, at least it may force school officials to explain why they've chosen to disregard the accepted wisdom on the central issue of how to teach poor urban children.
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