Former superintendent denies redistricting suit claims

Former Ascension Parish School Superintendent Donald Songy denied claims Thursday in a lawsuit that the 2008 redrawing of public school attendance zones on the parish’s east bank funneled minority and low-income students to East Ascension High School.

“That’s not what we did with Option 2f,” said Songy, who was superintendent from July 2006 until his retirement in June 2010, on the final day of a three-day judge trial of the suit.

Songy, who once taught at EAHS and St. Amant High School and also previously served as principal of Dutchtown Middle School, said the main goal of the redistricting plan was to ease severe overcrowding at Dutchtown Middle and Dutchtown High School.

Hurricane Katrina, which struck in the summer of 2005, contributed greatly to the overcrowding by injecting 2,400 displaced students into the parish’s public schools that fall, he said.

Songy said the intent behind the redistricting plan was to have roughly equal student populations at Dutchtown and St. Amant high schools and EAHS.

“I concede they (the numbers of minority and low-income students at EAHS) went up under 2Wf, but not as a result of 2f,” he said while being questioned by plaintiffs’ attorney Andre’ Gauthier.

Attorneys for the Ascension Parish School Board rested their case late Thursday afternoon after Songy completed his testimony. Attorneys for the plaintiffs — Gonzales parent Darrin K. Lewis Sr. and two of his children — rested their case Wednesday.

Chief U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson said he will issue a ruling after both sides file post-trial written arguments.

“This is a very important case and a very difficult case,” the judge said.

The late U.S. District Judge Ralph Tyson dismissed the lawsuit in 2009, but the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals revived it in 2011.

The suit alleges the School Board, which approved Option 2f by a 6-4 vote in January 2008, improperly considered race in setting district lines and modifying exclusive high school feeder systems.

The process resulted in a larger proportion of minority and low-income students at EAHS than at neighboring Dutchtown and St. Amant high schools, the suit contends.

EAHS has a majority minority student body; Dutchtown and St. Amant highs are predominantly white.

The 6-year-old suit also claims the higher minority and low-income populations at EAHS deprived other minority students of educational opportunities.

Patrice Pujol, the parish’s current superintendent of schools, rejected that notion on Thursday, testifying that EAHS is not treated any differently in terms of educational opportunities than Dutchtown and St. Amant.

Pujol, an EAHS graduate who taught at St. Amant High and later served as its principal, said EAHS now has its highest school performance score ever, ranking it among the top 10 percent of non-magnet high schools in the state. EAHS also has a “very strong” four-year graduation rate in the 80 percentile, she said.

“It (EAHS) stacks up very well,” Pujol stated. “I don’t think there are (non-magnet high) schools in East Baton Rouge Parish that score as well.”

She noted that the Ascension school system is ranked third in the state — its highest rating ever — based on school performance scores.

“We demonstrate clearly that we are among the premier districts in the state,” Pujol said in response to a question from School Board attorney Bob Hammonds.

Pujol took issue with Lewis’ testimony Wednesday that EAHS teachers are only interested in a paycheck.

“Absolutely not!” she testified. “Our teachers are premier professionals. They work tirelessly. I certainly wouldn’t agree with (Lewis’) characterization.”

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

Jackson is being asked to prohibit Option 2f from being implemented any longer.