Prairieville mom: Ascension schools feeder system is a ‘train wreck’

Prairieville parent Bridget Thomas was blunt in her testimony Tuesday about the Ascension Parish school system’s school assignment plan, calling it a “train wreck” that prompted her to pull her two children from the public school system and put them in parochial schools in neighboring East Baton Rouge Parish.

And School Board President Troy Gautreau testified in federal court that the board’s 2008 redistricting plan has had an adverse effect on East Ascension High School and its feeder schools by increasing the percentage of low-income students at the schools.

Gautreau’s and Thomas’ testimony came on the opening day of what is expected to be a three-day judge trial of a six-year-old lawsuit that claims the redistricting plan — known as Option 2f — discriminates against minority and low-income students.

Attorneys for plaintiff Darren K. Lewis Sr., a black father who had two children in the East Ascension High feeder zone in 2008, want Chief U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson to prohibit Option 2f from being implemented any longer.

School attorneys have argued in written motions that Lewis could be due some monetary damages but nothing more.

At issue is whether the redistricting plan had a discriminatory impact on minority students in the East Ascension feeder system and whether the School Board acted with discriminatory intent in adopting the plan in January 2008.

Lewis sued the school system in March 2008, alleging the board was trying to maintain a disproportionately high number of minority and low-income students in the East Ascension feeder system.

As a result, he claims, minority students at East Ascension High, in Gonzales, would not be “afforded educational opportunities equal to those available to the students at either Dutchtown High School or St. Amant High School.”

The plaintiff’s attorneys claim East Ascension High has suffered academically since Option 2f took effect, lagging behind St. Amant and Dutchtown in ACT and school performance scores. School system officials point out, however, that East Ascension is A-rated under the state accountability system.

The school system also has disputed the allegation that more low-income students were being sent to East Ascension High, arguing officials were trying to find a way to even out imbalances due to student population growth in Dutchtown.

The school system had been under a federal desegregation order previously, and officials said they were trying to maintain the unitary status the system was granted in 2004.

Jackson said Tuesday he will allow post-trial written arguments, meaning he won’t issue a ruling at the end of the trial but will instead take the case under advisement.

Shifts of school attendances zones have proven controversial in Ascension Parish as families from East Baton Rouge and other parishes move to burgeoning Ascension residential areas with eyes on specific feeder systems.

Jill Craft, one of Lewis’ attorneys, told the judge in her opening statement that East Ascension High has a majority minority student body while Dutchtown and St. Amant highs are predominantly white.

“Every school feeding East Ascension High School has an at-risk (low-income) population exceeding 50 percent,” she said, which is not the case with the Dutchtown and St. Amant feeder systems.

Craft also alleged that East Ascension High has issues with gangs, marijuana and thefts of cellphones.

“Kids can’t learn and teachers can’t teach when their hands are tied behind their back,” she stated.

Bob Hammonds, one of the School Board’s attorneys, countered that redistricting plans often draw criticism because “people don’t like change.”

Hammonds argued East Ascension High was ranked 48th in the state in terms of school performance in the 2007-2008 school year, before Option 2f took effect, and now is rated 17th.

“Option 2f has worked,” he told the judge.

AndrĂ© Gauthier, who also represents Lewis, disputed Hammonds’ argument regarding the No. 17 ranking.

Thomas, a white mother of two who lives in the Seven Oaks subdivision off La. 73, just a short distance from Dutchtown High, said the redistricting plan would have sent her children roughly five miles away — and a 20-minute drive — to East Ascension High in Gonzales.

She testified she was flabbergasted by the School Board’s adoption of the plan.

“I naively believed they would overturn their decision,” she said.

Alton Nickens, of Prairieville, who is in his 38th year on the Ascension Parish School Board, said he voted for Option 2f because he felt it was the best plan presented to the board to deal with overcrowding at Dutchtown.

“We were trying to balance the three high schools,” he testified. “We were trying to equalize the three high schools.”

Gautreau, who voted against Option 2f, acknowledged under questioning by Gauthier that every school in the East Ascension feeder system is a Title I school, or a school where at least 36 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

The Dutchtown system has no Title I schools, he said.

“The redistricting has had an adverse effect on East Ascension High School and its feeder schools,” Gautreau testified, while adding he saw no malicious intent on the board’s part.

Lewis must prove the redistricting plan had a disparate impact, and the impact was so severe that discriminatory intent must have occurred.

Dutchtown High was built in 2002 to relieve severe overcrowding at Dutchtown Middle School.

In the six full school years since Option 2f was adopted, the Ascension Parish school system has added another 2,218 students and built and opened six new primary schools.