Judge praises efforts to meet desegregation requirements
LAFAYETTE — A federal judge on Wednesday ended the federal desegregation lawsuit against the Evangeline Parish School Board, drawing to a close years of federal oversight of the parish’s public school system.
The desegregation case has spurred major changes over the past decade, including a $6 million makeover of Ville Platte High School and a 2004 school consolidation plan that closed high schools in the rural communities of Vidrine, Chataignier and Bayou Chicot.
“It’s a big day for Evangeline Parish,” School Board President Wayne Dardeau said. “It puts back into our hands what we can do and what we can’t do.”
The litigation began in the 1960s but had gone through periods of dormancy until the late 1990s.
The board’s decisions on staffing, student assignment and how much money is spent at each school have been carefully scrutinized by the Justice Department.
The main unresolved issue in recent years had been the poor condition of Ville Platte High School, which has a predominantly black student population.
The board has spent more than $6 million on renovations at Ville Platte High since 2004 and launched several academic initiatives there, including a magnet program and Advanced Placement classes.
U.S. District Judge Tucker Melancon told board members Wednesday that the turnaround at the school has been impressive.
“I don’t think ... that there is a school that is operated by the Evangeline Parish School Board that offers a more positive educational environmental than Ville Platte High School,” he said.
The Justice Department had once suggested closing Ville Platte High and sending its students to other schools in the parish.
The School Board had even proposed building a new school in Ville Platte, but that plan was abandoned after voters rejected three separate tax proposition to pay for construction.
Melancon, who made a surprise visit to Ville Platte High School late last year, told board members he was surprised at how far the school had come, considering there was once talk of tearing it down.
“That’s a remarkable school you have there, Superintendent Hamlin, it really is,” the judge said, addressing Superintendent Toni Hamlin.
The end of the desegregation case had been anticipated following a 2009 agreement between the School Board and Justice Department that laid out a road map for closing the case. It called for the board to continue renovations and academic improvements in Ville Platte and to make other changes related to student and teacher assignments.
“I think today is a great testimony to the commitment of Evangeline Parish,” Hamlin said.
Evangeline Parish had the last active school desegregation lawsuit in the Acadiana region.
A desegregation case in neighboring St. Landry Parish ended last year, and the Lafayette Parish School Board brought its desegregation case to a close in 2006.
The U.S. Justice Department and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund have asked a judge to revive a long-dormant school desegregation case in St. Martin Parish, but no decision has been made.