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Court orders renewed federal oversight of Tucson school desegregation

WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court Tuesday ordered a lower court to renew its oversight of a decades-long desegregation order against the Tucson Unified School District.

A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco said a federal judge in Tucson was wrong in 2009 when he granted the school district “unitary” — non-segregated — status and, in doing so, ended 31 years of court oversight of the case.

The appellate court noted that the district court judge had numerous questions about the schools’ integration success and little evidence that school officials had acted in good faith to fix the problems, but still granted unitary status. It reversed the decision and sent the case back to the district court.

“We order it (the lower court) to maintain jurisdiction until it is satisfied that the school district has met its burden by demonstrating — not merely promising — its good-faith compliance,” with the 1978 desegregation agreement, the appeals court said.

Tucson school district Superintendent John Pedicone and schools attorney Heather K. Gaines said they were still studying the ruling Tuesday and would have to meet with the district’s governing board before deciding how to move forward. The governing board meeting is scheduled for July 26, Gaines said.

“At this point, we’re still reviewing the decision,” she said. “We have to meet with the board and decide what this means.”

Nina Perales, who represented Tucson minority students through the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said the decision gives students “a real opportunity to close the gaps that were created.”

“It helps them overcome the well-documented legacy of discrimination,” Perales said.

David Hinojosa, another MALDEF lawyer, said the decision is a long time coming for the district, which is 60.6 percent Hispanic, 5.7 percent black and 24.9 white, according to May 2011 district numbers.

“It’s a shame that 55-plus years after Brown v .Board, we have to talk about these issues,” he said. Brown was the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case that invalidated school segregation.

The Tucson case began in 1974 when Hispanic and African-American students sued the school district, claiming “intentional segregation and unconstitutional discrimination” against students.

In 1978, the district court found that effects of segregation remained in the district, and it approved a desegregation plan that was agreed to by the school district, the plaintiffs and the Justice Department.

That plan called on Tucson schools to “eliminate the vestiges of past discrimination” through a number of measures, such as reassigning students through busing programs and eliminating discrimination in teacher assignments and training, student testing and discipline. The system had to report to the court annually on its progress and on school enrollment and staff assignments by race and ethnicity.

The school system was allowed to ask the court to end the agreement after five years, but it took 25 years before that request was made — and then only after the court asked the school system and the plaintiffs if there was any reason why the settlement should not be dissolved.

In 2005, the school district petitioned the court for a declaration of unitary status and termination of court oversight.

U.S. District Judge David C. Bury ruled in 2009 that the school district had not shown it had acted in good faith on desegregation and that it had failed to “monitor, track, review and analyze the effectiveness” of desegregation programs and policies. He also “raised significant questions” whether the district had eliminated the vestiges of desegregation.

Despite that, he declared the Tucson school system unitary, saying that “successful desegregation will exist when the district is accountable to the public” for its operations once more.

The appellate court did “not hesitate” to reverse that opinion. In sending the case back to Bury, it did note that he could begin a partial withdrawal of court oversight if he felt the school district was meeting all facets of the desegregation plan.

Pedicone said the school district just wants to do the right thing.

“We’ve been in the process of meeting the intent of the law,” he said. “With this order, we need to understand our obligations and what we need to do to move forward.”

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