Two school districts embroiled in a racial tug of war
By Jennifer Radcliffe and Renee C. Lee
MUMFORD - About 70 white students were turned away from their schools here for two days this week as their parents, school administrators and civil rights attorneys fought the latest round in a racially charged legal battle between two small-town Central Texas school districts.
A ruling Friday will allow the students, who had transferred from lower-performing schools in nearby Hearne, to return to their classrooms in Mumford on Monday.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted an emergency stay to allow the transfer students to remain until a hearing in early October. Students, some of whom have attended the 460-
student Mumford district since kindergarten, were banned earlier this week, after U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice ruled that their transfers violated federal desegregation laws by significantly altering the racial makeup of the school districts.
Relieved parents cheered, cried and hugged when they heard the news at the Mumford Middle School library.
"Thank God. He was listening," said parent Kristy Watson. "He knew it was wrong to deny kids a safe and good education."
The two Robertson County school districts have been at odds since Hearne filed a lawsuit in 2003 in U.S. District Court in Tyler claiming that Mumford was aggressively recruiting its white students. According to federal law, schools cannot purposely take steps to change their racial makeup.
The 110-square-mile Hearne district, which is 25 miles from Texas A&M University, has seen its enrollment drop by about 400 from 1993 to 2003. Nearly 300 of those students were white, according to Texas Education Agency records.
During that same decade, Mumford added 313 students, including 137 white students, according to state documents.
"We complained and said they're taking a whole bunch of our kids," said attorney Roger Hepworth, who is representing Hearne. "They run their buses right into our district and pick them all up."
School districts in Texas receive at least $5,500 in state funding for each child enrolled.
High transfer rates
While 83 school-age children lived within Mumford's boundaries in 2002, state records show 391 students transferred into the district that year. Many of the students improperly claimed hardship exemptions to transfer, TEA officials said.
As the district increased its enrollment with transfer students, it built three new schools and stocked them with computers, televisions and VCRs.
Hearne Superintendent David Deaver was hoping some of those students would return to his schools when classes resume Wednesday in Hearne. He's frustrated with the enrollment drain.
"It's been a disruption since 1990," Deaver said. "In the past 14 years, it's hurt us to the tune of $81.6 million."
While two-thirds of Robertson County is white, nearly 60 percent of the Hearne school district is black. Officials said the high transfer rates are further proof of "white flight."
"We draw our suspicions from Mumford's actions," said David Hinojosa, a staff attorney with Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "Courts have a job to remove segregation by root and branch. ... We're intrigued and anticipate a fair argument before the 5th Circuit."
MALDEF and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People have joined the legal team representing Hearne officials because the case involves desegregation laws.
Some parents say they transfer their students because Hearne schools are dangerous and don't do a good job of educating students.
In ratings released Thursday, the Hearne district and three of its four campuses failed to make "adequate yearly progress" — academic improvement required under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Mumford and all of its campuses made the mandated progress.
"This is an education flee. They're running to get an education. It's not about race or color," said Tim Johnson, a 1985 graduate of Hearne High, whose 13-year-old son attends Mumford. "I feel sorry for the kids that are (at Hearne) and cannot get out and go somewhere else."
White transfer students attended classes Wednesday, the Mumford district's first day, but were turned away Thursday and Friday.
Mumford High School math teacher Ralph Reed said it turned his stomach to have to send students home. The legal fight has really strained the start of the school year, the veteran teacher said.
"It was awful," said Reed, adding that teachers were starting to organize to home-school children who didn't want to attend Hearne schools.
Kelsey Watson, a Mumford eighth-grader, said she was upset when her mother told her she could not return to school because of the court order.
"I didn't understand why only white students," she said. "It shouldn't matter about race. My mother sent me here for a good education."
She said she didn't know how to answer friends who called every day asking when she would come back to school.
Senior Shawna McGarry, who was not affected by the order, said she is thrilled her friends will be returning.
"Our school is my family," she said. "You can't take away a small part of our family and it not affect everybody. It's our support system."
Reed said the community is willing to argue the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. "This is an issue that needs to be resolved because it has implications for the entire America," he said. "If it can happen here, it can happen anywhere."
Reed and others said that Mumford didn't need to recruit for students. The district's small classes, good facilities and strong academic programs speak for themselves, he said.
"It kind of leaked out by word of mouth. There was no effort to do that. Kids just started to show up," he said. "Two facts still remain clear: That Mumford is a good school and that Hearne is not. The choice is clear."
Mumford Superintendent Peter Bienski warned the fight is not over. "I think that we have to maintain a positive attitude and we have to believe we will be successful in this case. Parents have to continue to express their views and let the public know what's happening."
Renee C. Lee reported from Mumford. Jennifer Radcliffe reported from Houston.
Jennifer Radcliffe and Renee C. Lee
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