Everett v. Pitt County Board of Education, No. 11-2000

Decided: May 7, 2012

For over three decades the Pitt County Board of Education (“School Board”) in eastern North Carolina operated under a dormant desegregation decree that had originally been issued in the aftermath of the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), and which was designed to eliminate the vestiges of past racial discrimination in the school district.  The current round of litigation arose out of the School Board’s effort to implement a 2011-2012 student assignment plan in an effort by the board to deal with new developments in the school district, including the opening of a new elementary school, the conversion of an existing elementary school into a pre-school, and overcrowding at certain middle schools.  In considering the various proposals for the student assignment plan, the School Board weighed a number of factors such as neighborhood proximity and facility capacity; however, racial diversity was considered only as an element of the “student achievement” factor and not as its own separate factor.  Ultimately, the board adopted an assignment plan that would have increased the number of racially identifiable schools within the district, declining to choose an alternative proposal that would have created more diversity in the classroom.

A group of parents of minority students in the district filed suit against the School Board seeking to enjoin the implementation of the assignment plan.  These parents argued that the plan would reverse progress towards achieving the “unitary” status in the racial makeup of its schools required under the original 1960’s desegregation order.  On appeal from the district court’s denial of the injunction, the Fourth Circuit held that the district court erred in “failing to apply, and requiring the School Board to rebut, a presumption that any racial disparities in the 2011-2012 [a]ssignment [p]lan resulted from the School Board’s prior unconstitutional conduct in operating a racially segregated school district before 1970.”

Writing for the court, Judge Wynn explained that, because the school district was still operating under the original desegregation decree, it had a continuing duty to achieve unitary status as required by the Equal Protection Clause of the 14thAmendment.  (For a helpful explanation of how a school district achieves unitary status see footnote 6 in the majority opinion). Thus, the well-established presumption required the School Board to prove to the trial court that its assignment plan would comply with its affirmative duty to eliminate racial disparities in its schools.  The court dismissed the School Board’s argument that, notwithstanding the trial court’s error, the board had established enough evidence to show that its assignment plan did not deviate from achieving a unitary status.  According to the court, the School Board’s burden was not to show that its plan did not “move the school district further from a unitary system, [but the] actual burden is to establish that the…[p]lan moves the school district toward unitary status.”  Therefore, the Fourth Circuit reversed and remanded so the trial court could apply the correct evidentiary standard and to further develop the factual record.

Justice Niemeyer dissented from the court’s opinion, arguing that a 2009 settlement agreement between all interested parties and approved by the district court displaced the original desegregation decree as the effective consent order.  Justice Niemeyer pointed out that the settlement agreement “purported to settle all disputes going back to the 1960s and 1970s,” and that pursuant to this agreement the question of whether unitary status had been achieved was not to be reviewed until December 2012.

Full Opinion

-John C. Bruton, III

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