By John Brice
In the case of Lee v. Chambers County Board of Education which was presided over and ultimately ruled upon by U.S. District Court Judge W. Keith Watkins this past June, a detailed ruling was released on Friday, September 22nd of 2023. Totaling sixty-five pages, Watkins legal opinion is fully written out in the unabridged judicial document. Providing context for the recent ruling and the complex set of circumstances that led to it, the document states “The court has been deep into these issues.
In December 2022, the court held a public hearing on the Board’s motion and heard the emotional testimony of parents, students, and community organizations and leaders. It also conducted site visits to the high schools and the multiple suggested sites for the new high school. In January 2023, the court held a four-day trial during which it heard from thirteen witnesses and received more than sixty exhibits. There also has been voluminous briefing both before and after the trial.”
Further explaining the court’s role in the proceedings, the document remarks “Because the District is operating under federal-court desegregation orders and oversight, the District cannot independently close, consolidate, or build schools without obtaining federal-court approval. Over the last half century, the federal court has overseen school closures and consolidations in the District; some were by agreement, and others were in dispute. Most recently, in June 2022, after the first public hearing, the court approved the District’s decision to close Five Points Elementary School, J.P. Powell Middle School, and LaFayette-Lanier Elementary School.”
Expanding on that thought, it notes “ The District now moves for court approval to build a new high school on the proposed site in Valley and to temporarily consolidate its high school students at Valley High School until the new school’s completion. The construction of a district-wide high school is not in contention; however, the principal objections to the construction are that the proposed location of the new, district-wide high school in the City of Valley contravenes a 1993 consent order entered in this case and is unconstitutional because it imposes an unequal transportation burden on the District’s black students. The following are the court’s findings of fact as to the District’s proposed actions.”
Utilizing demographic trends to enhance their reasoning, the document states “According to the U.S. census data, Chambers County’s population decreased from 38,876 to 34,772 between 1990 and 2020, a 10.56 percent decrease. The City of LaFayette’s population also declined between 1990 and 2020. In 1990, the City of LaFayette’s population was 3,205; in 2000, it was 3,234; in 2010, it was 3,003; and in 2020, it was 2,684. The City of LaFayette’s population
decreased by 16.3 percent over this 30-year period, with the black population decreasing by 12.3 percent (1,991 to 1,747) and the white population decreasing by 31.1 percent (1,207 to 832)”.
It goes on to continue “During the same 30-year period, the City of Valley’s population increased. In 1990, the City of Valley’s population was 8,173; in 2000, it was 9,198; in 2010, it was 9,524; and in 2020, it was 10,513. The City of Valley’s population increased by 28.6 percent over this 30-year period, with the black population increasing by 180 percent (1,411 to 3,963) and the white population decreasing by 7.4 percent (6,735 to 6,234).”
Demonstrating that demographic declines have dovetailed downward with decreasing enrollments, the documents comments “Over the past thirty years, the District’s school enrollment has decreased. For the 1991–92 academic year, Valley High School projected an enrollment of 856 students, and LaFayette High School projected an enrollment of 514 students. For the 2022–23 academic year, Valley High School had 617 students (a twenty-eight percent decrease), and LaFayette High School had 205 students (a sixty percent decrease).”
Citing evidence presented by the plaintiffs in the case which argued against the CCSD assertions regarding travel, the document states “Plaintiffs presented two experts at trial. The experts disagreed with the District’s selection of the Valley site. Robert Murray, with King Consulting from California, was offered as an expert in school facilities and transportation planning. Mr. Murray testified that the District’s community presentations were biased in favor of the Valley site. He also testified that the District’s transportation cost analysis was overinflated. The District admitted the error concerning the calculation of the transportation cost analysis.”
It goes on to continue “Mr. Matthew Cropper was offered as an expert in K-12 school planning, with a ‘specialty [in] facilitating comprehensive school redistricting studies as well as demographic analysis and facility planning.’ By the time of trial, he had been studying the District’s school system for over two years. He opined that the District did not conduct adequate research to make an informed decision to reject the sites along Highway 50 and that reliance on the median population center as a basis for selecting a site is not ideal because it fails
to account for ‘outliers’. He also testified that the District should have selected a property in a central location, and not in Valley, to reduce the overall transportation burden for all students.”
Summing up their reasoning for deciding in the CCSD selection of the Valley site’s favor, the document concludes “Plaintiffs’ central criticism is with the site selection. Plaintiffs argue that the District’s proposed site is unconstitutional because it imposes a disproportionate transportation burden on the District’s black students at LaFayette High School. Closing LaFayette High School and consolidating those students at a new, consolidated high school in Valley does affect LaFayette-zoned black students more than white students because eighty-six percent of LaFayette High School’s student body is black.
However, the proposed plan—when viewed in context of a desegregation plan—does not impose an unconstitutional transportation burden overall on the District’s black students.”