Segregation is nearly 50 years displaced from St. Johns County’s public schools, but cumbersome federal mandates tied to the topic are still very much in play.
St. Johns is one of the last remaining school districts in the state governed by desegregation laws, litigation enacted in 1970 by the Department of Justice to inhibit schools from separating its students by color.
Under desegregation requirements, the School District is bound to judicial oversight on school operations such as tax rate changes, school openings and closures, staff hiring decisions, charter approval and facility improvements.
But now the School District is requesting the federal court reconsider the litigation.
“The Justice Department and the school board filed a joint motion asking the court to enter an order declaring the district as unitary, meaning it’s no longer segregated,” said Frank Upchurch III, the School Board attorney.
Upchurch said the School District has spent several years collecting and analyzing data to prove there is equal opportunity for all students in enrollment, facilities, academics and sports.
He said the Justice Department inspected select schools last fall and agreed St. Johns was meeting requirements. In March, a joint motion was filed to grant unitary status to the district.
“What it results in is the dismissal of the lawsuit, the extinction of an order,” Upchurch explained. “It proves all vestiges of the segregated system are gone and the district is completely integrated.”
Unfortunately the process has been anything but quick and easy.
Upchurch said a hearing scheduled in Jacksonville for next week was cancelled by the judge and now the motion will move to a magistrate.
“We’re basically in a wait-and-see mode right now,” he said.
Resolution of desegregation litigation will enable the school board to make significant decisions for the district without needing permission from the court.
Superintendent Joe Joyner said modern times call for modern measures and even the Justice Department encourages the transition.
“There is an obligation for districts under federal court orders to attempt to achieve unitary status,” Joyner said. “That’s the expectation of the Justice Department.”
Although St. Johns County has a predominantly white student body of 86 percent, Joyner said data proves the district is more than free of past segregation concerns.
Upchurch said only one stipulation remains should the motion pass. The district would need to match the percentage of its African-American faculty to the percentage of its African-American students.
Currently, the district has employed around 5 percent of African-American teachers and has an African-American student population of 7 percent.
Upchurch speculates the process could still take several more months, but he remains positive the district can break away from the old mandates.
Joyner echoed similar optimism and said it was time for the district to move forward on the issue.
“I think it’s obviously a good thing for our school district and it’s positive for us to be out of the scrutiny and oversight of the federal government,” Joyner said. “We felt like this was the appropriate time to tackle this issue, it obviously takes a lot of work and effort, but it’s the right thing to do for our community.”