Judicial Smackdown

The overrule of Judge Bernice Donald means an end to court's role in county schools.



What was U.S. District Judge Bernice Donald thinking two years ago when she tried to put the Shelby County schools under a "special master" to oversee reassignment of students and staff?

Rarely has a federal judge's decision been as thoroughly trashed by the appellate court, plaintiffs, defendants, and the families that would have been affected by it.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, in a 2-1 ruling against Donald's 2007 decision, said her court "abused its discretion" in rejecting "a reasonable and good faith joint motion" by the county board of education, the Justice Department, and the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund.

Richard Fields, who has been involved in the case since 1982 as attorney for the Legal Defense Fund, said he never understood the thinking of Donald, the only black federal judge in Memphis.

"I was very surprised at her ruling, and I don't know why she did it," he said.

In legal terms, the Shelby County school system has been granted "unitary status" and is out from under a 46-year-old desegregation order stemming from a lawsuit filed by a county schools student and supported by the federal government and the NAACP.

The appeals court smackdown means county schools won't have to reassign students in racially unbalanced schools. The county system is 53 percent white, 37 percent black, 4 percent Asian, and 4 percent Hispanic. Ten county schools are at least 80 percent white. Southwind High School, which opened two years ago, is 1.2 percent white.

If Memphis annexes Southwind and other schools in its reserve area, the county system's black enrollment will fall to 7.68 percent, according to Maura Black Sullivan of the Memphis and Shelby County Division of Planning and Development.

To which the appeals court said, so be it.

The judges said the school district has no duty to remedy imbalance caused by demographic factors, annexation, and "voluntary housing choices made by the public." Southwind's student body reflects the demographics of the neighborhoods in its attendance boundary, just as 75-percent white Arlington High School — Southwind's architectural twin in northeast Shelby County — reflects its residential areas.

Donald would have had each county school be more reflective of the overall county demographic mix, which would have meant busing students or drawing new attendance zones.

In effect, she overruled herself in her 2007 order because she had signed off, in "rubber stamp" fashion, on the county school system's plans several times before she apparently had second thoughts over the outcome.

We can only guess at her motivations and reaction to last week's overrule. Federal judges speak only from the bench and in their rulings. Fields, however, has quite a lot to say.

"Shelby County schools has some smart people, and they did what the court required them to do," he said. "Every time we had a boundary dispute, we resolved it because they had good people on the staff, school board, and in the superintendent's office. The students have had straight A's on the state report card for years. It was a situation where we had no choice but to grant unitary status."

The city of Memphis, he opined, would be "insane" to annex any more schools and territory because "without the help of the federal government, both the city and county would be bankrupt today."

Once a champion of then-superintendent Willie Herenton and the court-ordered desegregation of the Memphis City Schools, Fields has had a bitter falling out with the mayor during his last two terms. But he gives Herenton credit for trying to keep white students in the system and for closing underused schools during his years as superintendent.

"None of the MCS superintendents since Herenton have been interested in desegregation," he said. "The Legal Defense Fund basically laid off the school system to give them an opportunity to work on it, and they failed miserably. There could be more white kids if they tried to stabilize neighborhoods. Look at Idlewild, Grahamwood, and Richland. You have to provide a quality education, and Memphis, with some exceptions, has failed to do that. That's why I support charter schools and programs like Teach For America."

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