School board members defend rezoning plan in federal court

Thursday, November 12, 2009 at 2:37pm

School board members are defending their new student assignment plan in federal court, denying their goal was to rid Hillwood’s schools of black children from north Nashville’s housing projects.

Instead, they say they wanted to give north Nashville’s parents a choice between putting their children on buses to Hillwood or putting them in schools closer to home.

“The facet of the plan that I liked is that it provided choice,” school board chairman David Fox testified Thursday.  “I liked the fact that they had a choice either way. I think having a choice is better than not having a choice.”

Fox and school board member Mark North have taken the witness stand this week in the NAACP-backed lawsuit accusing Metro of discriminating against black children by ending cross-town busing. The lawsuit asks U.S. District Judge John Nixon to order the school board to develop a new plan that’s acceptable to both sides. The hearing is expected to last through next week.

To help make up his mind about rezoning, North testified he rode a school bus 45 minutes with north Nashville’s children on their way home one day. He described one girl, who helped him find a seat on the bus, as "the sweetest child I ever saw" and said he read aloud to the students from their library books during the ride.

“This was an important event for me."

He said he learned the bus ride “wasn’t torture. It wasn’t the worst thing that ever happened.” And he said, “I was convinced that for some of the children on that bus, it was a good thing" to attend school in the white suburbs. "And I was also convinced that I wasn’t sure it was best for some children. And there was also probably no way for me to tell which was which. It raised questions for me.”

He said he later became convinced the way to handle the issue was to allow parents to choose which schools their children will attend.

Of the 1,526 north Nashville students zoned last year for Hillwood’s schools, 1,094 have chosen to go to schools closer to home, according to the school district. The district is providing transportation to students who choose Hillwood’s schools.

But experts have testified the rezoning plan has isolated hundreds more children by race and socioeconomic status and contradicted decades of social science on how to teach poor urban kids. These witnesses cited 40 years of studies, including research in Nashville by Vanderbilt University’s Claire Smrekar and Ellen Goldring, showing that students learn less in schools where poverty is concentrated.

Fox and North acknowledged they knew about this research, and neither could cite any studies supporting their own opinions that schools filled with children from impoverished neighborhoods can succeed.

Under questioning by civil rights attorney Larry Woods, North said he met for an hour with Smrekar and Goldring when he was chairing the task force that recommended the rezoning plan to the school board.

"We discussed their findings but they never said schools in poor communities are going to fail," he testified.

: "What did they say?"

North: "They said it is difficult to overcome extreme poverty."

Woods: "And what was your response to them on that subject?"

North: "We talked about the choice. We talked about how busing wasn’t working for everyone, and we talked about focusing on educating each student."

North contended one of his task force's goals was "to maintain and promote diversity" in schools with the rezoning. But Woods pointed out that hundreds more African-American children were zoned for Pearl-Cohn's already heavily black schools.

Woods: "Did anybody on the task force say, when you’re talking about Pearl-Cohn, [it] looks like we’re getting ready to decrease diversity rather than increase it, or words to that effect?"

North: "I think all of those discussions were candid. I don’t remember those words specifically, but yeah, we looked at the impact, um, closely."

Woods: "So this wasn’t happenstance with what happened with Pearl-Cohn? It was discussed out loud by the task force."

North: "I think we discussed the impact on diversity, yes sir."


6 Comments on this post:

By: artsmart on 11/12/09 at 2:41

This City is funny, it is like living in the mob. No one does anything unless it benefits them personally, law or not. There is never a negoiation or comprise, just go straight to scorched earth policy.

By: localboy on 11/12/09 at 5:21

This ability to choose between schools - is this offered to all parents in Metro?

By: SirKnight on 11/13/09 at 7:31

artsmart, what the heck are you talking about? What is so 'scorched earth' about this policy? How do you see this a though we are 'living in the mob'? Most Americans, no matter what race, creed or religion just want freedom to choose what is best for them and their family. (Just not sure what your opinion is, I guess.)

By: artsmart on 11/13/09 at 9:14

reply to sirknight:

I'm not talking about the plan, I'm talking about the way things are handled on both sides. The treatening to ruin the family name because they didn't get what they want, or anyone who votes for rezoning is a racist. I have been up against Metro Schools and the Board on a very serious matter and their only concern was covering their backsides nothing else. Certainly not the child involved, not the laws being violated. That is what I am talking about. All of these people are only conerned about themselves.

By: drewjohn on 11/13/09 at 11:20

Do i get the Choice to bus my kids to North Nashville? Since we are driving all their kids to hillwood than why don't we move all the hillwood student to Perl cohn. Would it be easier just to switch the names of the schools. Than everyone would feel good inside and no one will have to be bused all over town at the tax payer's expense.

By: Shuzilla on 11/17/09 at 9:25

"...the NAACP-backed lawsuit accusing Metro of discriminating against black children by ending cross-town busing." That's exactly azz-backwards, IMO. Once forced desegregation precipitated the flight of the white/suburban middle class from MNPS, the burden of busing fell primarily onto the inner-city children. Thus, the previous system of busing inner-city children to the suburbs, not for better schools but for racial ballance, was itself discriminatory even if the result was perceived to benefit those being discriminated against.

"These witnesses cited 40 years of studies, including research in Nashville by Vanderbilt University’s Claire Smrekar and Ellen Goldring, showing that students learn less in schools where poverty is concentrated." Fine. Now, since eligibility for free/reduced lunches has reached 3/4 of the student population and is growing, how will a return to busing lead to the desired increase of middle- and upper-middle-class students in our public schools needed in order to dilute/reverse the growing concentrations of poverty?