NEW ORLEANS (CN) - The 5th Circuit ordered a Louisiana federal judge to further investigate whether a school district passed a rezoning plan to reduce the number of minority and lower-income students in certain areas.
Darrin Lewis filed the 2008 federal complaint on behalf of his two children, who are black students in the Ascension Parish School District. But a Baton Rouge federal judge rejected Lewis' claim that the district had adopted a new student-assignment plan that was impermissibly race-based and discriminatory against minority children zoned for East Ascension High School.
The 5th Circuit partly affirmed Thursday, noting that the record is insufficient for it tp "determine whether the district's plan must be subjected to strict or rational basis scrutiny. Further factual development is required."
Ascension Parish School District operates four high schools in southeast Louisiana: Donaldsonville High School on the west bank of the Mississippi River, St. Amant High School on the east bank, East Ascension High School and Dutchtown High School.
Since at least 1972, the district has used a "feeder" plan to assign students to specific schools, ensuring that children go to the same high school as their middle school classmates.
But the dismissal of a longstanding desegregation case in 2004 enabled the district to make school assignments as it saw fit. After maintaining the old feeder plan for another two years, enrollment at Dutchtown Middle School, a Dutchtown High
School feeder school, rose to over 1,000 students and caused severe overcrowding.
No other East Bank middle school had more than 730 students enrolled. Superintendent Donald Songy and district staff began exploring various rezoning options, hoping to move approximately 450 students from Dutchtown Middle School to other East Bank schools with capacity for growth.
The Lewis family claimed that the change violated their equal-protection rights.
"Lewis claimed that the School Board's 'actions since the construction of Dutchtown High School ... were taken to ensure that East Ascension High School would maintain a disproportionately large non-white minority population, leaving the remaining two East Bank schools as predominantly white,'" according to the federal appeals court. "He further alleged that, because [the rezoning plan] placed a disproportionate number of at-risk students in the East Ascension feeder zone, [it] 'would ensure that the non-white minority students at East Ascension High School would not, now and in the future, be afforded educational opportunities equal to those available to the students at either Dutchtown High School or St. Amant High School.'"
"Lewis does not suggest that at-risk students are a suspect class for equal protection purposes," it continues. "His claim is that minority students are being discriminated against based upon their race by a disproportionate influx of at-risk students into their schools."
The ruling defines "at-risk students" as those who qualify for free or reduced cost lunch.
A federal judge found that Lewis could sue only on behalf of one of the minor children because he could not prove he was the legal guardian of the other at the time he filed the original complaint.
"The court found the plan facially race neutral and that Lewis had not presented competent evidence of discriminatory motive by the school board or disparate impact resulting from [the plan]," the appeals court summarized. "The magistrate judge determined that [the re-zoning plan] satisfied rational basis review because the district had a legitimate government interest in alleviating school overcrowding."
Looking at Lewis' appeal, a three-judge panel could not agree. "We find the court's analysis troubling for two reasons," the unsigned opinion states. "First, it is unclear how, on the record before us, the court could make a factual finding as a matter of law about the board's lack of discriminatory purpose. Second, the court's assumption that it might be justifiable to use racially-based decisions for the 'benign' purpose of maintaining post-unitary 'racial balance' among the schools in the system is at least in tension with the Supreme Court's decision in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle Sch. Dist. No. 1, 551 US 701, 127 S. Ct. 2738 (2007)."
In Parents Involved, the court held that preserving the district's unitary status by means of racially-based assignments, albeit a "benign" racial motive, was still unconstitutional.
"We need not parse Parents Involved further here, as we conclude that the following evidence created a genuine issue of material fact whether the board acted with a racially discriminatory motive," the 46-page decision states.
Testimony from school board officials related to the rezoning plan also suggests that the district relied upon the race of the individual students residing in different geographic locations when it rezoned its schools, the 5th Circuit found.
"Because factual questions exist as to whether [the plan for re-zoning] had both a racially discriminatory motive and a disparate impact, and the court misapprehended the significance of the evidence before it, the court erred in awarding summary judgment under a rational basis test," the panel wrote.
"No doubt the district had a responsibility to address overcrowding in Dutchtown High School," it added. "It could not, however, do so by assigning individual students among the schools based upon disadvantaging one race over another in the assignment of at-risk students, even if the motive in doing so is the 'benign' motive of 'maintaining unitary status.' The standard of review, whether strict scrutiny or rational basis, turns on the factual questions of discriminatory motive and impact.
Chief Judge Edith Jones sat on the panel along with Circuit Judges Carolyn King and Hugh Haynes.
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