Tangipahoa School Board seeks stay in desegregation case

The Tangipahoa Parish School Board and plaintiffs in the district’s desegregation case on Thursday filed a joint motion to stay federal court proceedings challenging state voucher and teacher evaluation laws, pending the outcome of related cases at the Louisiana Supreme Court.

The move marks a partial reversal of course from November, when attorneys for the board and plaintiffs argued that the state court challenges to Acts 1 and 2 of the 2012 Regular Session of the state Legislature would not be decided in a timely enough or sufficient manner to negate the need for federal court intervention.

The School Board requested an injunction in September against the state voucher program, embodied in Act 2, arguing that it deprived the district of funding needed to carry out its court-ordered desegregation plan.

The plaintiffs’ side agreed, adding that the program also encouraged “white flight” from public schools and disrupted the student population projections on which the plan was based.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys also argued that the teacher evaluation laws within Act 1 failed to take into account court orders regarding the recruitment and retention of black teachers in Tangipahoa Parish.

U.S. District Judge Ivan L.R. Lemelle, who oversees the district’s 47-year-old desegregation case, agreed and granted a preliminary injunction against implementation of both acts within Tangipahoa Parish.

The state Department of Education appealed that ruling to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where the case remains in the briefing stage.

The state Education Department maintains that the federal court had no right to intervene in state decision-making due to state sovereignty guaranteed under the 11th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The state also has argued that the federal District Court should have refrained from ruling, pending the outcomes of a pair of state court cases challenging the constitutionality of the two acts.

Attorneys for the School Board and plaintiffs, who initially opposed the state’s request for a stay of the federal court proceedings, now agree that the state Supreme Court’s decisions on the constitutionality of Acts 1 and 2 could render at least part of the federal challenge moot.

“It doesn’t moot the case altogether, but it certainly could narrow the issues we would need to deal with if vouchers are gone and parts of the state laws at issue no longer exist,” plaintiffs’ attorney Nelson Taylor said Thursday. “But there would still be other issues to address, and we would still proceed with trial” on the permanent injunction.

School Board attorney Charles Patin said, from the board’s perspective, the only issues were with Act 2’s use of Minimum Foundation Program funds for the voucher and course provider programs.

“If the state ends up funding those things another way, that would be a different case. Our argument was based on the law’s taking money away from the school district,” Patin said.

The only remaining issue would be whether the programs disrupt the school district’s ability to desegregate, he said.