Local school administrators have set their sights on turning the former Tangi Academy on Yokum Road into an extension of Hammond Eastside Magnet School, but the question remains if the Tangipahoa Parish’s long standing desegregation case will stand in the way of these new plans.
Attorneys returned to court for the case Thursday. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Judge Ivan Lemelle held a video conference to hear oral arguments for pending motions related to the proposed joint final agreement he provisionally approved in February.
He heard from defendants about how their facilities plan, which includes the purchase of the Yokum Road school, related to the district’s pursuit of unitary status, as well as other updates on the district’s progress since the last hearing. Many questions remained at the end of the hearing which the judge, court appointees and plaintiffs hope will be answered by the time the case reconvenes for another hearing.
“I’m encouraged from what I’m hearing from everybody to the extent we have some open issues before the court is ready to make a decision on this,” Lemelle said.
He asked the defendants to provide more information from the demographer, CSRS and state reporting for the next hearing. He added this “information may determine the next step.”
Attending the video conference on the plaintiff’s side were attorneys Cassandra Butler, Nelson Taylor and Gideon Carter. Attending on the defendant’s side were attorney Ashley Bass and Superintendent Melissa Stilley. Court-appointed chief desegregation implementation officer Rev. Andrew Jackson and court compliance officer Donald Massey were present for the call.
School system administrators have figured out a way to start on Phase I projects by using money from restricted funds for capital improvement projects and bonding $10-15 million through a consent agreement made possible by the district paying on debt owed for OW Dillon Leadership Academy, Bass said.
“The goal is to empty the restrictive funds on phase I projects so we have capacity to bond out funds and then will need more money as they get to Phase II,” she said.
Demographers anticipate a 21.8 percent growth projection at Hammond Eastside. To accommodate this, Hammond Eastside lower grades would move to the existing Yokum facility, which is in foreclosure, while the upper grades would remain at the school’s current location on River Road.
“Once we can purchase the school, we would take rest of this year or six to eight months to do improvements to the school before moving staff and students of the lower school to that site,” Stilley said.
In addition to the Yokum Road school purchase, phase I projects for the facilities plan also incorporate removing temporary buildings and improving older schools, including Ponchatoula High, Champ Cooper, DC Reeves, Loranger High and Kentwood High, which was the only predominantly Black school discussed.
Bass said she doesn’t think this new development would impact school ratios for students and faculty because it would be another facility to house these students for this growth that is expected. She pointed out that the school would have more room to accommodate diversity and magnet transfers.
CSRS determined an intensity of need based on the demographics report, personally visited every campus in the district and ranked them, Stilley said.
Lemelle is interested in learning more about the location of area growth and any data the demographer may have collected about the racial makeup of the people expected to move into the area. He is also interested in learning more about improving what goes on inside the brick-and-mortar schools.
More information needs to be gathered from demographers to see if they can give some methodology for how that population of growth affects Black and non-black, he said. Although the assumptions are the racial percentages may not change, most people coming to the area are affluent enough to afford a new home and most likely white.
Court-Appointed Chief Desegregation Implementation Officer Andrew Jackson questioned how phase I would achieve unitary status or help to achieve that. There were a lot of expectations, but he wanted more details.
“How does it affect segregation?” Jackson asked. “That’s something I will be looking into and getting with attorney Massey. I think it’s something we should address.”
Plaintiff attorney Nelson Taylor, who represents the main plaintiffs as well as Tangipahoa Parish’s Black students and community members, was concerned because, to his knowledge, this area has never been an area with significant growth to the African American community.
“There are lots of things that have been said like the schools being affected by their plans does not change anything in segregation; however, to my mind, the growth they are talking about is in predominantly white areas,” Taylor said.
He believes systemic racism patterns are still alive in the schools.
“This is still a school desegregation case that has been existing since 1965, and there are reasons why we are here. There is resistance to desegregating schools in this parish,” Taylor said.
He added that he currently has an ongoing major hiring complaint about the school district hiding positions or putting people into positions without advertising for it.
“Just because [it’s] 50/50 does not mean you can reject black candidates,” Taylor said.
He would like Donald Massey, the court compliance officer, to engage with other experts outside the school system to help decide what needs to be done to fix the student intervention problem.
Twenty schools urgently need intervention, most affecting black students, Taylor said. If the state deems this a problem, then certainly this is an issue before the court, he said.
“It’s not about bricks-and-mortars of schools. It’s about what they are doing for students,” Taylor said.