U.S. District Judge Madeline Haikala on Thursday said she was encouraged by the collaborative effort used to develop new school attendance zones in Hoover, but she has yet to render a decision on the proposal.
Haikala listened to more than six hours of testimony about the rezoning plan developed for Hoover City Schools during a hearing at the federal courthouse in Birmingham.
She said she has a much better understanding of the impact the proposed new attendance zones would have on the Hoover community but would like to take all the written materials and testimony under advisement before issuing an order.
If she has additional questions before she is ready to render a decision, she will set up a telephone conference call with attorneys for all the parties involved, she said.
The plan presented to the federal court could potentially shift about 2,500 children to new schools in the 2016-17 school year. Hoover school officials say the rezoning is needed to put children in schools closer to their homes, maximize use of existing school buildings and to make room for future growth.
Haikala said she was encouraged by the productive working relationship that seems to have developed between the Hoover school system, the U.S. Department of Justice and attorneys for minority plaintiffs in a decades-old school desegregation lawsuit.
The Hoover school district is seeking to be released from court supervision in the desegregation lawsuit by showing proof that the goals of the desegregation court order from decades ago have been met in Hoover.
However, the school district, the Department of Justice and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (which is representing minority students in Hoover) all agreed they want to address the redrawing of school attendance zones before they proceed with other issues related to the case.
School systems in Jefferson County must get court approval for any redrawing of school attendance zones to make sure such changes do not hinder desegregation goals.
Haikala on Thursday said there is still work to be done in regard to the racial demographics of the Hoover school system’s faculty and leadership, but getting a solid rezoning plan for students is a good place to start working.
She said she hopes to see continued growth in the collaborative relationship between the school district, the Department of Justice and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Haikala also commended Hoover school officials for reaching out to the community for input in the rezoning plan and making changes in the plan where possible to address concerns.
“With any rezoning, it’s inevitable that students have to move, and that carries a fair amount of concern for parents,” the judge said.
Hopefully, the school system’s effort to involve the community in the process will help make whatever plan is approved work more smoothly, she said.
After Thursday’s hearing ended, Hoover schools Superintendent Kathy Murphy said she was excited to get to this point. “We’ve had our day in court to share our plan,” she said.
Murphy said she respects the judge’s decision to review all the conversations that took place today and all the evidence submitted and looks forward to the judge’s decision.
Hoover school board attorney Donald Sweeney told the judge Thursday that a major redrawing of school zones in 2004 was intended to further desegregate the school system by shifting students in many apartment complexes to new schools. Many of the minority students in Hoover schools lived in apartment complexes in the central part of the city and school officials were trying to spread them out to numerous schools.
However, it was brought to the attention of school officials that the 2004 rezoning effort had a disproportionate negative impact on minority students because it forced them to attend schools farther away from their homes.
Hoover Assistant Superintendent Ron Dodson on Thursday testified that a new rezoning effort that began in 2014 under former Superintendent Andy Craig would have reshuffled students from apartments again, affecting minority students in a disproportionate manner once again. That plan eventually was shelved.
Dodson said he believes the new plan developed within the past year was put together in a more race-conscious manner. Discussions with the Department of Justice and Legal Defense Fund have helped bring about greater concern for the burden that had been put on minority and lower-income families, he said.
“I feel like I have a new set of glasses,” Dodson said.
Retired federal Judge U.W. Clemon, who helped represent the original plaintiffs in the Jefferson County desegregation case and who now serves as an associate attorney for the Legal Defense Fund, said the plaintiffs in the case are satisfied with the rezoning plan as presented.
“The biggest improvement is that the black students in the system are no longer going to be bussed all over the system to meet quotas at each school,” Clemon said. “Now, basically, the students — black and white — are going to go to the schools in or nearest their neighborhoods.”
Monique Lin-Luse, the lead attorney for the Legal Defense Fund in this case, said she believes the new rezoning plan is a necessary step to correct the unfair decisions of the past.
While students in 23 of the 42 apartment complexes in Hoover would be rezoned under the new plan, numerous other students also are being shifted, so the burden of rezoning is not disproportionately impacting minority students, Lin-Luse said.
And while numerous minority students would be moved under the current proposal, the change in thinking to put students back in schools closer to their homes puts the school district on a sustainable path as the system continues to grow and lessens the likelihood that those communities will be moved again every time a rezoning is needed, Lin-Luse said.
Clemon said working with Hoover school officials, particularly Superintendent Kathy Murphy, has been refreshing. He has not experienced such a collaborative working relationship with any other school system, he said.