Longtime NAACP official Bob Saunders had a distinct sense of deja vu Thursday as he sat in on a federal court hearing while lawyers argued for the umpteenth time about the Hillsborough school district's desegregation efforts.
At issue this time is whether the school district has neglected its desegregation responsibilities by allowing some schools to become "racially identifiable" with large percentages of black students.
"I never thought, back in 1958 (when the desegregation lawsuit was filed), that we'd be here today doing this," Saunders said during a break in testimony.
The court's eventual ruling could have a huge impact on Hillsborough schools. If the court agrees that the school system has become resegregated, it could result in more busing to achieve racial balances, and a possible end to the district's cluster plan that was designed to reduce busing.
But if the court decides the other way, Hillsborough's school district could be a step closer to getting out from under continual federal court supesrvision.
The hearing before U.S. Magistrate Elizabeth Jenkins will continue next week. Jenkins will make a recommendation to U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich, who will decide the matter.
"We are here saying the schools are resegregated," said Warren Dawson, the attorney for the Legal Defense Fund, the plaintiff in the desegration lawsuit. "The School Board of Hillsborough County has failed or refused . . . to prevent the recurrence of these segregated schools."
Dawson pointed to 16 schools that have an African-American student population of 40 percent or more. The highest black percentages are at elementary schools, such as Robles with 90 percent and Edison with 75 percent.
School Board attorney Tom Gonzalez agreed that several schools have become predominantly black. But, he argued, it happened not because of any action by the school district, but because of changes in the neighborhoods surrounding the schools.
For instance, Robles was an overwhelmingly white neighborhood school during the first days of desegregation. Over the years, it has remained a neighborhood school with virtually no students bused in. But the neighborhood, and therefore the school, gradually become predominantly black.
And, Gonzalez pointed out, attorneys for the plaintiffs never raised objections to the race ratios at those schools before, even though many have been predominantly black for years.
"It is undisputed that there were no objections made by the plaintiffs to any of those reports," Gonzalez said, referring to the annual reports the district sends to the opposing attorneys and to the court, describing race ratios at all schools.
In fact, Gonzalez pointed to a 1990 memo from Dawson regarding the district's desegregation efforts, in which Dawson wrote, "To use the colloquial phrase, 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it.' The basic structure of desegregation in this school system has remained constant and effective since 1971."
Gonzalez pointed to one of the key issues in the case: Is the mere existence of predominantly black schools evidence of a violation of the court's 1971 desegregation order? Or, would there have to be evidence that the school district did something to cause those schools to become predominantly black?
Dawson argued that the school district cannot take a hands-off approach, and must see to it that schools do not become racially identifiable.
Dawson said that according to the School Board attorney's arguments, in the first months of the district's desegregation efforts "it was a done deal as far the School Board argues." But, Dawson said, "it didn't come to an end at that point. That duty does not end until the court says that it ends."
Dawson warned that, historically, it is the "racially identifiable . . . schools that are neglected."