Sides disagree on affordability of building 3 schools

Alternate desegregation plan laid out

Tangipahoa Parish School Board officials and attorneys for plaintiffs in the board’s ongoing desegregation lawsuit are battling over whether the board has enough money to build three new elementary schools as required by the board’s 2010 federal desegregation order.

Nelson Taylor, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, says in court documents the board has more than enough money for the schools, even after voters in April 2011 rejected four tax proposals intended to fund the new facilities.

School Board officials deny that claim, saying the parish would not have enough money to run the schools if built.

Taylor filed a motion Saturday asking U.S. District Judge Ivan L.R. Lemelle to hold a hearing to determine whether the board should be held in contempt of court for what Taylor calls a willful refusal to implement the 2010 order.

The desegregation order stems from a lawsuit filed against the School Board in 1965. The issue was never fully resolved but was revived in 2007 after black community leaders raised questions about racial segregation in the parish’s schools.

Lemelle approved a school desegregation order in 2010 that required three new elementary schools be built. The School Board, in a heated session Sept. 12, approved sending to Lemelle a modified plan that excludes the new schools and instead would redraw the parish’s attendance zones to achieve greater racial balance.

Lemelle told the board’s attorneys in a status conference Nov. 15 to discuss the new plan further with the plaintiffs’ attorneys before the judge would consider holding a hearing about it.

Taylor has said he was not properly consulted about the plan, a claim the school system has denied.

School Board officials have said building the new schools, which carry a projected $54 million price tag, would be impossible because the board’s finances are tight.

Taylor’s Saturday court motion says the School Board has said it has enough money to build the schools, even after the April 2011 tax package defeat.

Taylor pointed to the school system’s 1-cent sales tax to finance bonds for construction, in addition to another 1-cent sales tax available, and what he says is $17 million in surplus funds in the parish’s coffers.

“(The) plaintiffs suggest to the court that this is not an issue of availability of resources, but an issue of hostility and resistance to allocating resources to promote desegregation in the school system,” Taylor’s motion says.

Board member Brett Duncan, the lead proponent of the new desegregation plan, said Monday that the board does have the funds to construct the new schools but would not have enough resources to run them if built.

“We don’t need to waste the money or the time, especially when the alternative plan desegregates much better then the one that requires building three new schools,” Duncan said in an email.

Taylor’s motion says Duncan has publicly disparaged the court and the plaintiffs’ attorneys, even though the board itself agreed to the original order.

Taylor hurled further criticism at Duncan in an email to Patricia Morris, president of the Greater Tangipahoa Parish Branch chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, saying “all of his hoopla is meaningless.”

Taylor’s email says he received messages from community members asking him to meet with community groups to discuss Duncan’s plan.

The email does not say when Taylor received those messages.

“The effort to get me to participate in this process was an effort to legitimize what I consider to be illegal conduct that amounts to contempt of court,” Taylor says.

Duncan fired back, sending an email to Morris and other community leaders saying the new plan would desegregate the parish’s schools faster than the existing order.

“If Mr. Taylor would pause his unreasonable multipage rants from time to time and actually look at the plan, he might have noticed this fact at some point during the last year and a half that we have been attempting to negotiate with him,” Duncan says.

Duncan said Taylor’s email shows Taylor knew details of the modified plan all along “but would just rather force us to build schools that we don’t need, judicially raise the taxes of our constituents, and keep our parish under federal court control for as long as possible.”