In sometimes emotional testimony Wednesday, former Metro school board chairwoman Marsha Warden denied her Hillwood constituents ever pressured her to rid their schools of black children from north Nashville's housing projects.
"Did your vote [for the new student assignment plan] have anything to do with an attempt to move African-American children out of the Hillwood cluster" of schools?" she was asked.
"It most certainly did not," Warden replied.
Warden testified on the 10th day of a federal court hearing for an NAACP-backed lawsuit against the school board. It accuses the board of discriminating against black children by rezoning students and ending cross-town busing to Hillwood from north Nashville. The board adopted the rezoning plan in July 2008 when Warden was chairwoman. Later that year, she left the board after deciding not to run for reelection.
Warden became choked with emotion as she described the work of the community task force that recommended the rezoning plan to the board.
"It was a gift of love," she testified, tears filling her eyes.
"There was no undue influence," she said. "That's what I asked every school board member, to be sure they put no influence on the task force."
Earlier in the hearing, Won Choi, a political activist, testified about his conversations with Alan Coverstone, who replaced Warden on the board as Hillwood's representative. Choi said he tried to persuade Coverstone to support delaying the new student zones. But Coverstone said "that would mean that he would no longer be a board member, that he would be voted out," adding that Hillwood residents had used racial slurs while pressuring him on the issue, Choi testified.
Warden repeatedly denied her constituents ever spoke to her about ending cross-town busing to remove black children from Hillwood's schools. She insisted she voted for the new zones mainly because she wanted to use school buildings more efficiently. But she acknowledged under cross-examination that efficiency had not, in fact, improved significantly under the plan. Four schools were closed but all those buildings have been put to other uses, and more than 20 schools remain with large unused spaces.
"It will be an issue that will have to be dealt with, yes sir," she testified.
Warden offered a behind-the-scenes look at the ouster of Pedro Garcia as superintendent in January 2008. Garcia claimed in memorandums that he was forced out because he opposed rezoning as a resegregation of schools. But Warden said the board decided to buy out his contract, paying Garcia $216,000, because he "lost his focus" as schools director and was refusing to cooperate with state officials trying to improve the district, which was failing student achievement standards.
"Dr. Garcia would focus on the positive," Warden testified, claiming he hoodwinked the school board into believing the system was in better shape than was true. Then after the district failed for six straight years, state Education Department officials finally explained the dire situation to the board, Warden said.
"Did your board colleagues seem taken aback about this?" asked Metro lawyer Kevin Klein.
"Yes, I would even say shocked," Warden replied.
Afterward, Warden said she talked with health care executive Thomas Cigarran, a major player with the Chamber of Commerce, as well as mayoral aides Greg Hinote and Jim Hester, and decided to confront Garcia herself about what she called his poor job performance. She said it was Garcia who later sought a buyout. She voted for the buyout, she said, because "it seemed the fastest way to attain new leadership for the school system."