By Carolyn Roy
One of the most important decisions to affect public education in Natchitoches Parish in 35 years has been made by a federal court judge. At the committee meeting Tuesday, Supt. of Schools Dale Skinner said he received a call late Friday from U.S. Federal Judge Dee Drell saying he had granted a motion for declaration of unitary status for the local school system. Skinner said he was not ready to comment on what the declaration will mean to parish schools since there will be a meeting Tuesday, Oct. 10 at 5 p.m. at the school board office for attorneys to detail the ramifications of the decision.
Skinner would only say that the decision had stipulations. Generally, it means the school board can make its own decisions about staffing and student assignment without oversight from a federal judge. While there have been many reasons for the court’s declaration, Skinner said there have been two major reasons why the judge decided the way he did. The first has been the effort by Personnel Director Linda Page to recruit minority teachers. The second is the efforts by the professional development team that he said visited a different school nearly every day. Skinner acknowledged the efforts of the whole system including teachers, staff and support personnel.
He also believes that the system improving from a C to a B District was a factor. “We are improving and we’re doing a lot of good things.” Board President Ralph Wilson, a vocal opponent of the board’s attempt to leave the desegregation plan, said, “I was overwhelmingly against it. But I will work to do the best I can to adhere to the judge’s decision.” Wilson said he was interested in forming a “watchdog” group. The “Green” factors used to determine whether a desegregation plan was acceptable include the ratio of black to white students and faculty and equality in facilities, transportation and extracurricular activities.
The Natchitoches Parish School Board applied for unitary status in 2006 following a controversial motion offered by then school board member Cecil Walker. The issue was decided with a 6-5 vote in favor with much dissention from minority school board members. The Natchitoches Parish School Board has been under a federal court desegregation order since 1981. On June 18, 2012, the court declared the district unitary in the areas of extracurricular activities, facilities and transportation.
On Dec. 5, 2012, the court declared the district unitary in the area of staff assignments. Drell set a hearing for Feb. 11, 2013, to consider student and teacher assignment. A subsequent suit by plaintiffs in the Ruby Lee Calhoun, et al case, the original suit, delayed the unitary declaration until last Friday. In 1981, the system began bussing minority students to achieve racial equality.
The development of Natchitoches Central High School began with federal court orders to desegregate the two major existing high schools in the city of Natchitoches, all-white Natchitoches Central, and all-black Central High School. To further desegregate schools, there was a massive consolidation that assigned 10th through 12th grade students from Natchitoches, Allen, Provencal, Marthaville, and Robeline into the new Natchitoches Central High School facility. Several rural schools closed as a result. Ninth grade students were housed at a facility named Natchitoches Ninth Grade Center and operated under a separate administration. That center now houses Natchitoches Jr. High.
In 1989, Cloutierville High School was closed and those students were assigned to Natchitoches Central High School. Some elementary students in the Pan Am and Town South areas of the City were bussed to Cloutierville. Elementary students in Payne Subdivision and other locations were bussed to Fairview Alpha and Goldonna.