Only a little more than a decade after finally winning release from desegregation decrees, Nashville’s school officials have been dragged back into federal court to face accusations they’re discriminating against black children.
At issue is the student assignment plan that went into effect this school year, ending the last vestige of cross-town busing to achieve racial balance in Nashville. With the plaintiffs in the NAACP-supported lawsuit — three black families — trying to show a racial motivation for the rezoning, the city’s white officialdom has been confronted with uncomfortable questions.
Did school board chairman David Fox openly advocate segregation in community meetings? Did he say, as the plaintiffs’ attorneys allege, that we should “put African-American students back in north Nashville where they live?”
Did state Rep. Mike Turner use racial terms to urge support for the rezoning plan in a closed-door meeting with Chamber of Commerce and NAACP officials? Did he say, as has been alleged, that “this rezoning plan will put the whites in their neighborhood schools and the blacks in their neighborhood schools, and everybody will be better off?”
Both men deny making those remarks, and U.S. District Judge John Nixon’s decision in the case could turn on whether he believes them.
But perhaps most important to the NAACP’s case are memorandums written by Pedro Garcia around the time the school board was forcing his resignation as superintendent in 2008.
One of these memos blew up in the trial last week. In it, Garcia paints white school board members as a gang of conniving segregationists who, acting in league with the Chamber of Commerce, tossed him out of his job for taking a principled stand against racism.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Larry Woods, schooling his less experienced rival — Metro lawyer Kevin Klein — managed to worm the memo into evidence through the back door on the trial’s first day. During testimony by just-retired board member George Thompson, Woods suddenly used an overhead projector to flash the memo onto a courtroom wall.
Despite Klein’s repeated objections that the document contains outrageous hearsay — “layers of hearsay,” in fact — Nixon said Woods could ask Thompson about it as long as Thompson was testifying about his own state of mind when he voted against the rezoning plan. The judge said he’d rule later about the admissibility of the document itself.
Arguing race was a factor
Woods says he thinks the memo is the proof he needs to nail shut his case. The NAACP is asking Nixon to throw out the rezoning plan and order the school board to come up with a new one acceptable to both sides.
To win, the plaintiffs need to demonstrate that race was at least one of the motivating factors in the board’s decision to adopt the rezoning plan, which stopped the busing of black children from north Nashville to the Hillwood cluster.
At the trial last week, Metro lawyers said the board wanted to return to neighborhood schools to encourage parental involvement, not to remove poor black children from Hillwood schools.
“Their intent was to provide opportunity for these students,” Klein said. “It had nothing to do with some discriminatory purpose.”
On the advice of lawyers, school board members aren’t talking to reporters about the lawsuit. But during an interview last year, Fox scoffed at Garcia’s memos.
He said Garcia was pushed out of office after six years as superintendent because he was inept, not because he opposed the rezoning plan. Anything Garcia says should be taken as sour grapes, Fox asserted.
“To treat a document from Garcia as if it’s some sort of inviolate word of God is remarkable,” Fox said.
According to Garcia, who’s refusing to testify himself, race was not just one factor; it was just about the only factor. In particular, he names then-board chair Marsha Warden as the ringleader of what he saw as a plot to remove as many black children from Hillwood High School as possible. Garcia writes:
“I know that the situation I find myself in today, and the pressure exerted upon me by Marsha Warden, is the direct result of my decision to fight against her desire to move the African American children from the Hillwood Cluster so she could be re-elected. Unfortunately, this is a racially charged issue. I took the stand to oppose re-segregating the district.”
At a raucous meeting peppered with protests from the audience, the school board adopted the new student assignment zones by a vote of 5-4 in July 2008, seven months after Garcia lost his job. One black member — Antioch’s Karen Johnson — joined the board’s four whites to make the majority.
In an affidavit, Warden, who did not seek re-election in 2008, denies Garcia’s accusations. To this reporter last year, she scoffed at his memos: “This is no more racially motivated than the man in the moon.”
The leaked memo
Garcia gave his memo to rezoning opponents on the school board, who leaked it to the media at the 11th hour to try to kill the plan.
“I doubt the veracity of this memo, OK?” Warden said. “Isn’t it really funny that this has just come out right before we’re voting?”
But at a public meeting in 2007, Garcia did denounce the plan as racist. He writes he decided to oppose it after visiting Brookmeade Elementary School, which had been scheduled to close. In an awakening for Garcia, teachers told the superintendent that the school should stay open because they said white students then attending private schools would return if black children were sent elsewhere.
“The faculty, in general, indicated the school would be full of white students presently attending private schools. After that meeting, I considered the implications of the plan.”
Garcia writes that after he came out against the plan, Warden told him in a private meeting “that my coming evaluation would be very bad for me and I ought to do everything possible to avoid it. ...After my comments, Marsha Warden added, ‘You have lost the confidence of the mayor, the confidence of the Chamber and the confidence of the Board. You need to leave.’ ”