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Court Orders Further Review of N.C. District's Assignment Plan

A federal appeals court has ordered a lower court to give greater scrutiny to a North Carolina school district's student-assignment plan, suggesting that the district's move away from racial diversity goals is inconsistent with a long-running court-supervised desegregation plan.

The case involves the 23,000-student Pitt County school district, which has been under court supervision for desegregation since the 1960s. The case was largely dormant when, in 2006, a parents' group filed a complaint about race-conscious student assignments with the U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights. The district and the parents' group, the Greenville Parents Association, clashed before settling the complaint, with the parents' group backing away from efforts to have the district declared unitary, or legally desegregated. The district, meanwhile, agreed to include the parents' group in the planning and discussion for its 2011-12 assignment plan.(The district's enrollment is 48.3 percent black, 38.3 percent white, and 9.2 percent Hispanic this year.)

In 2010, the school district adopted a plan with less reliance on racial diversity and ended up with a new school with a high concentration of minority students. This prompted complaints from a second parents' group, the Pitt County Coalition for Educating Black Children, that the plan was moving the district toward more racially identifiable schools with lowered student achievement.

The coalition sought the intervention of the U.S. District Court overseeing the district's desegregation orders. The coalition argued that the 2011-12 student assignment plan moved the district further away from becoming a unitary system.

The district court sided against the coalition, ruling in August 2011 that intervention would disrupt the school system and that a review of the district's progress towards unitary status was due by December 2012.

The coalition appealed, and in a May 7 decision, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, in Richmond, Va., ruled 2-1 to set aside the lower court's decision.

"Given that there is no dispute that the school district has not attained unitary status, the evidentiary burden should have been on the School Board to prove that the 2011-12 Assignment Plan is consistent with the controlling desegregation orders and fulfills the School Board's affirmative duty to eliminate the vestiges of discrimination and move toward unitary status," Judge James A. Wynn Jr. said for the majority in Everett v. Pitt County Board of Education.

The court remanded the case to the district court for further factual development.

In dissent, U.S. Circuit Judge Paul V. Niemeyer said the 2009 settlement of the Greenville Parents Association's OCR complaint purported to settle all disputes in the desegregation case "going back to the 1960s and 1970s." The burden of proof was properly on the other parents' group, the Pitt County Coalition for Educating Black Children, when it brought its motion to have the district court reject the 2011-12 assignment plan, and the district court properly rejected the group's efforts, Judge Niemeyer said.

The coalition is represented by the Center for Civil Rights at the University of North Carolina law school, which has a Web page devoted to the case that includes legal briefs for both the coalition and the school district.

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