The hiring process Decatur City Schools put in place for teachers in 2009 as part of its more than 50-year-old desegregation order is “comprehensive, extensive and fair,” deputy superintendent of instruction and human resources Yvette Evans said in federal court.
But she said under cross-examination there’s room to improve in hiring black teachers, and that’s something the school system will work to do.
Evans, who has been in the school system for almost 30 years, was the only witness attorneys put on the stand Wednesday during a fairness hearing in the school system’s effort to end court-supervised desegregation oversight.
After attorneys on both sides rested, Federal Judge R. David Proctor heard comments from four Decatur residents, three who opposed the school system getting unitary status and one who described himself as a “happy white guy” who supports the school system receiving unitary status.
Proctor gave attorneys until Monday to submit “three to five” pages of additional arguments if they think of something that needs to be added into the record.
“I’ll try to get an opinion out as soon as I can,” he said.
Tommy Sykes, a Decatur school board member from 1989-2008, Doris Baker and Sam King spoke against unitary status. Their objections centered mostly on what they called disparity in the number of discipline referrals between black and white students.
Sykes said he wished the courts would put something in place to assure that future board members and superintendents don’t return to operating a dual school system.
Baker and King spent most of their time talking about discipline referrals, an issue Proctor said he addressed with his 2012 ruling.
Herb Underwood, who said he attended school in Huntsville in the late 1960s when desegregation was in its infancy, complimented Decatur’s progress, saying the district should get unitary status because he supports less government intrusion.
A system is "unitary" if it has successfully met legal desegregation requirements. 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 with separate schools for blacks and whites.
Proctor granted the district partial unitary status in July 2012. The court retained oversight only of the district’s hiring practices because the school district and plaintiffs agreed at the time the courts should continue to monitor a DCS hiring process that had been in place three years.
Tuscaloosa attorney Rusty Gibson, who represents the school system, said in a recent court filings and at Wednesday's hearing that the school district has “met its constitutional obligations regarding teacher hiring and assignments and should be declared unitary.”
Chris Awad, an attorney with the Justice Department agreed, writing in court filings that the government “has no objections” to the court granting “unitary status with respect to the remaining area of the district’s operations: faculty hiring and assignment.”
Attorney Stanley Gray, who represents the plaintiffs in the case, Awad and Gibson questioned Evans for more than two hours. She was the only witness the courts placed under oath.
During direct examination, Gibson got Evans to explain the district’s current hiring process and he submitted into evidence a document that shows that nine of the 17 principals in DCS are black and that 17.48 percent of the school system’s teachers are black, compared to a decade ago when 15 percent of Decatur’s certified employees were black. Officials have said about 31% of the district’s 8,700 students were black in 2017-18.
“How has the hiring process worked?” Gibson asked.
“In my opinion, beautifully,” Evans answered.
She said Decatur’s use of the Alabama State Department of Education’s Hire Enterprise hiring system, formerly known as SearchSoft, has been in place since 2009 and given the hiring process “accountability” been “fair and impartial” and “served the school system well.”
During cross examination, Gray focused on several schools and painted a picture that didn’t show progress in the area of hiring black teachers. He said seven of the 17 school sites have the same number or fewer black teachers than they did in 2009.
One of the schools he picked out was Somerville Road Elementary (now Oak Park Elementary), which in 2009, had seven black teachers, but only six in 2018.
“Do you consider this progress?” he asked Evans.
“No,” she answered
Gray also questioned Evans about job fairs and why DCS attends job fairs only at Alabama A&M and Alabama State University, two of the state’s largest historically black colleges.
He said there are other historically black colleges in the state with colleges of education, such as Miles, Oakwood, Stillman and Tuskegee.
During the end of his examination, Gray questioned Evans about the district’s plan to recruit black teachers going forward.
She said the district has to continue to recruit and entice black teachers to move to Decatur, but the competition is fierce because black teachers want to be in larger cities, and affordable housing in Decatur is an issue. Evans said teachers also want to be in an area where they can have a more diverse social life.
If unitary status is granted, Superintendent Michael Douglas, who attended the hearing, said DCS plans to continue to use the same hiring system.
Hire Enterprise allows certified employees to fill out applications online and list school systems where they want to work. This is where DCS posts job openings. The software generates a list of qualified candidates who are referred to DCS based on years of experience and level of education.
Each certified applicant seeking employment with DCS is required to participate in a prescreening interview that is conducted by a diverse team composed of principals or supervisors, according to the court documents filed by DCS.
The district has a ranking system that scores applicants with 0-30 points. Applicants who receive a score of 18 or above are considered "HR Recommended" and their names are placed in an online data system, which signals to principals and supervisors that the applicants are eligible to interview for open positions in DCS, Evans said Wednesday.
She said every effort is made to interview at least 10 candidates for each position.
Before DCS began using the state hiring system, candidates took applications directly to the school, which plaintiffs argued gave in-school candidates and local applicants an advantage.
Plaintiffs in the desegregation suit called the process unfair.
After the hearing, Gray said if Proctor grants unitary status the case is over and the plaintiffs “can’t revisit this particular case.”