U.S. District Judge Madelina Haikala today gave preliminary approval to the Hoover school rezoning plan but will not allow it to be implemented in the 2016-17 school year.
When students return to school in August, the student attendance zones will remain the same as they have been for the 2015-16 school year.
The federal judge said in an order issued this afternoon that Hoover schools have legitimate capacity issues that merit redrawing of attendance zones.
And she agreed with the reasoning put forth by Hoover officials, the U.S. Department of Justice and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund when they submitted a joint rezoning proposal in March.
However, Haikala said it would be premature to give final approval for new attendance zones for the 2016-17 school year because the parties have not yet fully assessed issues the district must address to meet its desegregation obligations.
Haikala wants the school district, Justice Department and Legal Defense and Educational Fund to evaluate more thoroughly the various components of a 1968 U.S. Supreme Court order that are designed to ensure that racial discrimination is eliminated from public education.
That ruling requires school districts to show that black students are not treated unfairly with regard to student assignment, facilities, transportation and extracurricular activities, and that racial discrimination does not occur in the hiring and placement of faculty and staff.
Hoover’s proposed rezoning plan must account for any opportunities the district may offer students as it tries to prove it has met desegregation goals, Haikala wrote. Those opportunities include magnet programs and voluntary transfer options that allow students whose race is in the majority in their school zone to transfer to a school where their race is in the minority, Haikala wrote.
By Jan. 17, she wants all the parties in the case to submit to the court a written assessment of how Hoover is doing with regard to other desegregation factors and an analysis of how those factors may affect student attendance zones.
That should help the parties to revise, as necessary, the proposed student assignment plan and then present a final rezoning plan to the court, Haikala wrote.
By May 31, 2017, the parties must present a comprehensive plan for a path toward Hoover schools being released from direct federal court supervision.
The court’s “end purpose” is to remedy any constitutional violations and restore the control of public schools to state and local authorities, Haikala wrote.
“The Court is confident that the district and the Hoover community will benefit from this assessment, and the Court anticipates that the parties will be better positioned to seek final approval of a student assignment plan for the 2017-18 school year,” she wrote.
Haikala’s order indicates that Hoover’s rezoning plan would shift more than 2,200 students — just under 20 percent of the total school district population – to new school zones. Sixty-nine percent of those are elementary students, while 18 percent are middle school students and 13 percent are high school students, the judge wrote.
However, the actual number of students who would have switched to schools they would not otherwise attend probably would have been less than 2,200 because school officials had proposed to “grandfather” some students and let them stay in their current school zones. The “grandfathering” plan would have allowed students in grades 8-11 to remain in their current high school zone until they graduated and students currently in grades 1, 4 and 7 to remain at their current school for one more year if they so chose.
School capacity and overcrowding
The judge also noted that Hoover schools have added more than 2,000 students over the past decade, climbing to a total enrollment of nearly 14,000. Several schools have absorbed a substantial portion of that growth. For example, Riverchase Elementary added 105 students from the 2007-08 school year to the 2015-16 school year. Berry Middle School added nearly 100 students, and Spain Park High School added just more than 250 students, the judge wrote. Hoover High outpaced the growth of all schools, adding nearly 500 new students over the past decade, and additional growth is anticipated in the southwest section of the city over the next few years, the judge wrote.
Many Hoover schools have neared or exceeded their optimal capacity, and a few schools are nearing maximum capacity, while three are using 70 percent or less of their optimal capacity, the judge wrote.
“School overcrowding is largely a practical and logistical challenge that the district must address because of its potential negative effects on the educational services offered to all students in the district,” Haikala wrote. “However, to fulfill its constitutional obligations in this case, Hoover muse ensure that any solutions adopted to address overcrowding do not operate in a racially discriminatory manner.”
Rezoning of minorities
More than a decade ago, the school district adopted a practice of assigning students living in apartment complexes to schools beyond their neighborhood schools.
“The Court does not condone and would not approve the unilateral use of cluster assignments as a means of resolving school capacity issues because doing so places an inequitable burden on students who are members of minority populations within the Hoover district, including African-American students,” Haikala wrote.
The rezoning plan submitted to the court in March more equitably distributed the burden of rezoning among both students in multi-family dwellings (the majority of whom are African-American) and students in single-family homes (the majority of whom are Caucasian), the judge wrote.
The judge also noted that although African-American students currently make up about 26 percent of the district’s total student population, nearly half the students facing rezoning under the March 2016 plan were African-American.
However, unwinding the district’s past practice of moving multi-family (majority African-American) students further away from schools closest to their community necessitates moving them again to get them back in schools closer to their residence, the judge said.
Hoover schools Superintendent Kathy Murphy today issued a statement that said school officials will continue their work on rezoning and continue to focus on all children.
The school district will develop a comprehensive plan in collaboration with the Justice Department and Legal Defense and Educational Fund that will address not only student assignment, but all the factors that must be addressed to be released from federal court direct oversight regarding desegregation, Murphy said.
“We will keep our community fully informed regarding our progress,” Murphy said. “The time invested this year in the proposed rezoning plan has been well spent and has given us an important framework from which to continue our progress.”
Murphy thanked the community for providing input throughout the rezoning process and for the patience displayed in waiting for a decision.
This article was updated at 9:48 p.m. with many details from the judge's order.