Huntsville City Schools Rezoning - WAFF-TV: News, Weather and Sports for Huntsville, AL

By: Staff

HUNTSVILLE, AL (WAFF) - On June 30, 2014, federal judge Madeline Hughes Haikala appointed a mediator in the battle to rezone Huntsville City Schools.

Chief Magistrate Judge John Ott will be the mediator between the city school district and the Department of Justice. Both entities have filed two different assignment plans for federal approval.

Huntsville City School Board member Laurie McCaulley said "time is of the essence" and the district hopes to sit down with the mediator and DOJ officials within a week.

Decatur attorney Greg Reeves has gone to mediation dozens of times over his legal career.

According to Reeves, the mediator usually will split both parties into separate rooms at the same location and then go back and forth with proposals in hopes of hammering out an agreement.

Judge Haikala appointed Chief Magistrate Judge John Ott to be the mediator.

Both sides would have to agree to that, and McCauley said the district has not decided whether they want Judge Ott to oversee mediation discussions.

According to Reeves, anything discussed behind closed doors between the two parties and the mediator is not public information.

Reeves said even the judge won't know details of any kind of an agreement prior to a mediator submitting documents to the court if an agreement is reached.

The cost of achieving "unitary status"

In June, the school system released numbers that showed what it took to achieve what administrators and the courts call "unitary status."

With last year and this year combined, the district has paid more than $448,999 to two law firms for legal support. For a demographic firm to analyze and study student makeup, the school system paid $154,000.

That figure totals just over $603,000 - only a fraction of the legal budget however, to put it into perspective, that dollar amount is equivalent to six to 10 teachers' salaries for just one year.

During mediation, both sides will discuss revisions to their plans, including proposals for improving the education programs in predominantly African-American schools.

The school board is allowed to proceed with its construction plans at this time, according to the documents.

Issues addressed in judge's order

The judge also addressed the fact that most schools in the district are either predominately African-American or white.

She ordered the district to remove from its website criticism on majority-to-minority transfers and remove a portion that says the district met desegregation requirements regarding teacher staffing because the court has not ruled on that yet.

She also criticized the DOJ, saying it was stagnant in monitoring the district closely. She said that for 20 years, the district was supposed to be submitting an annual report on desegregation improvements, but never did.

So far, a date has not been set for the school board and DOJ to meet.

School district responds

Two days after the judge's order, Huntsville City School Board held a special called meeting to discuss the rezoning battle.

The board went into executive session and met behind closed doors for about 20 minutes. When they returned, they gave a statement.

The school board said they hope to have a plan in place for unitary status by the end of the year. Superintendent Dr. Casey Wardynski said the board will work with the DOJ to create that road map.

January 2015: Proposed consent decree

The Department of Justice announced on January 26 that it filed a proposed consent order in the Hereford v. Huntsville Board of Education case.

If approved, the consent order would end the dispute to reconfigure student attendance zones, and would require the district to provide equal educational opportunities to African-American students.

If the proposed order is approved, the Justice Department will monitor and enforce the district's compliance. The district may seek a declaration of unitary status and dismissal of the case when it can demonstrate sustained compliance with the terms of the order. On April 21, Judge Madeline Haikala filed an opinion in District Court, which states that she feels the proposed consent order "maps a path towards unitary status." This favorable opinion paves the way for the two parties to begin enacting the actions listed in the proposed consent order. "The court looks forward to the day when it will be able to declare Huntsville's public school system unitary," Haikala wrote.

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