Decatur City Schools has successfully implemented a 1970 plan to desegregate its school system and “has carried its burden to show that it has achieved unitary status,” said federal District Judge R. David Proctor.

In a 12-page ruling, the judge granted Decatur’s request for total unitary status and an end to court desegregation oversight, something the district sought for the first time in 2008.

“This is a big day for Decatur and the school district,” Superintendent Michael Douglas said Monday.

Proctor’s order means that if Decatur decides to construct a new school that will change attendance zones — such as when Cedar Ridge Middle and Banks-Caddell Elementary were built — the school system can do so without getting permission from a federal court.

School officials have said construction of both schools took more than an extra year to start because DCS had to first prove to the court that the projects would not create racially identifiable schools.

Decatur also can opt out of a requirement to interview at least 10 people for every teaching vacancy, which in some cases caused the district to lose qualified teachers to other districts because the interviewing process was protracted, school leaders said.

A system is "unitary" if it has successfully met legal desegregation requirements that were set by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1968 related to transportation, extracurricular activities, facilities, student assignment, faculty assignment and staff assignment. These indicators of whether a school system has become desegregated, or unitary, are referred to as the "Green factors," referring to the name of the Supreme Court case.

When DCS was added in 1968 as a defendant in the Lee vs. Macon County Board of Education lawsuit, it had a segregated, or "dual," system.

In July 2012, Proctor granted DCS partial unitary status when he ended court oversight in five of the six Green factors. 

He retained oversight of the district’s hiring practices because some principals were not following the court-approved hiring process, according to witness testimony in 2011. Several principals testified they were not accurately entering hiring data or fully using Decatur’s computerized hiring database.

Proctor held a fairness hearing June 12, and heard argument and testimony from DCS, private plaintiffs and the U.S. Department of Justice. In his order issued Wednesday, Proctor concluded that DCS had “demonstrated compliance with the principle of racial equality” related to hiring and demonstrated that it will not discriminate in the future.

Douglas, who came to DCS in June 2017, said the school system plans to continue its use of the Alabama State Department of Education’s Hire Enterprise hiring system, formerly known as SearchSoft, which has been in place since 2009.

Having unitary status, however, gives the school system leeway to make changes to the process — such as revising specific written questions asked of each applicant — without having to return to the federal courts for approval, the superintendent said.

Douglas said the guiding document for the school system going forward will be a resolution the school board filed with the court in December 2010.

“Just because unitary status is granted doesn’t mean we’re going to throw everything away,” he said. “We’re going to continue to do the right thing and monitor our status.”

Former board member Tommy Sykes said he was not surprised Proctor granted DCS unitary status.

He was one of three who spoke in court against DCS getting unitary status because, he said, "I’m worried about the school system returning to its old practices at some point in the future.”

Sykes, who served on the school board from 1989-2008, said he talked with Douglas “and from everything people have told me about him I believe he will do the right thing. But he’s not always going to be the superintendent.”

Sykes said he was not aware of the board's 2010 resolution until it was mentioned during the June 12 fairness hearing.

Four of the current board members — Karen Duke, Donnie Lane, Dwight Jett and Michele Gray King — signed the resolution when Sam Houston was superintendent.

The resolution is a pledge to the residents of Decatur promising that the school system “will not discriminate against any child on the basis of race” and that students will have “equal educational opportunities" and that “racial discrimination in the future will be neither practiced nor tolerated.”

Decatur residents Sam King and Doris Baker also spoke against DCS receiving unitary status at the June 12 hearing, but their issues centered mainly on what they called disparity in the number of discipline referrals between black and white students.

The hearing, however, related solely to the school system’s hiring practices.

“None of the issues raised by the citizens reflected any deficiencies in the hiring and assignment procedures,” Proctor wrote.

- deangelo@decaturdaily.com or 256-340-2469. Twitter @DD_Deangelo.

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