Unitary status for TCS

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 16, 2003

On May 8, the United States government could declare unitary status in certain areas of Troy City Schools operations.

On its face, the decision means the school system satisfactorily ensures their operations are equitable for all students.

In application, it means the school system will have more decision-making power

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The Troy City Board of Education has filed a joint motion with the NAACP and the U.S. Justice Department requesting unitary status for five of seven areas regarding school desegregation and equity.

The five areas the board will petition for unitary status are: student assignment/ grouping, graduation rates including types of diplomas, extracurricular activities, discipline and complaints of racial harassment and/or discrimination.

The two areas not included in the petition are faculty assignment and hiring and special education including gifted and talented.

"We will be out from under the court order in those five areas," said Superintendent Hank Jones.

"But it won't alter the things we agreed to (under the consent decree)."

The school system entered the consent decree in 1999, which required that the system take measures in the seven areas to complete the desegregation of its schools.

The consent decree is an outcropping of Lee v Macon County, a federal court decision ordering eliminating the dual "separate but equal" school systems prominent in the 1960s.

"We already received unitary status with our facilities and transportation because we don't have two different zones," Jones said.

"We've had unitary status since 1999, when we entered the consent decree."

Unitary status in those areas was readily declared because Troy City only has one high school, one middle school, one elementary school and no bussing except for special-needs students.

Therefore, there could be no discrimination in those areas.

Pike County Schools Superintendent Mark Bazzell said having a system with multiple school zones brings challenges that systems like Troy City don't have.

"It's a longer process for us," he said.

Bazzell said Pike County is making considerable progress, though, and has been communicating with the Justice Department.

After a conference with them in May, Bazzell said he should have a better idea of where his school system stands.

Bazzell did say that transportation has never been considered a problem by the courts and the county-wide renovation projects will help substantially with the area of facilities.

"We have made a huge amount of progress in unitary status," he said.

Since the 1999 consent decree, which also included Pike County Schools, officials have filed report after report documenting their area improvements.

"For a three-year period, we gathered information and filed reports to show that we were working towards accomplishing what was laid out in the consent decree," Jones said.

But the reports weren't only necessary for the government; they also helped the school system recognize potential problems.

"It made us acutely aware of situations we were not aware of before," said Assistant Superintendent Toni Stetson.

"And I'm sure that was the intent of the consent decree."

Jones and Stetson also feel they are in compliance in the area of special education, but said they won't be cleared until the state is.

"We can't be separate from the state being dismissed," said Stetson.

"Once the state is dismissed, then unitary status will be declared."

The area of faculty assignment has also improved and Jones hopes unitary status will soon be granted.

In 1995-1996, black teachers made up 15 percent of Troy City Schools' staff.

In 2002-2003, after the consent decree, the number increased to 22 percent.

"We've made real strides in this area," said Jones.

"We'll continue to work on this area this year and one additional year and apply for unitary status in September 2004."

If granted, the official recognition that Troy City Schools has successfully desegregated in five areas won't change the day-to-day school operations.

But, Jones said it will supply peace of mind.

"What this will provide to the parents and community is the comfort that all children being educated in Troy City Schools have an equal opportunity for that education," Jones said.

In the long run, it means more home rule for the school system.

The school board will no longer need Justice Department approval to build buildings or restructure grade levels.

This is especially useful to school systems with multiple schools, like Pike County.

When Pike County Board of Education decided to begin their system-wide renovation projects, they had to wait for Justice to approve their plans.

Under unitary status, they will need no such permission.

The fairness hearing for Troy City Schools is scheduled for May 8 at 2 p.m. in Courtroom 2C in the United States Courthouse Complex in Montgomery.

Written comments and objections can be made on a form available at the Troy City Board of Education.

They must be submitted to the court no later than May 2.

Only those people who have submitted written opinions can speak at the hearing.