Equity & Diversity

Hillsborough, Fla., District Declared ‘Unitary’

By Robert C. Johnston — March 28, 2001 3 min read

One of Florida’s longest-running desegregation orders has been overturned by a federal court—the latest in a string of decisions to reverse decades of court oversight in Florida districts once found to operate racially divided schools.

In the most recent case, the Hillsborough County system, which includes Tampa, was declared free of racial segregation and released from a 1971 desegregation order. A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta, handed the ruling down March 16.

The late Thurgood Marshall, the first black U.S. Supreme Court justice, helped file the 1958 lawsuit that led to the Hillsborough desegregation ruling.

“This [case] has been in the works for a long time, and we’ve been anxious to get it over,” said Jack B. Lamb, a member of the school board for the 161,000-student central Florida district. “We are very pleased.”

The lawyers representing the plaintiffs in the case can appeal the ruling to the full appeals court, or seek to place the case before the Supreme Court.

“We are reviewing the decision, and we’ll be conferring with our clients and with fellow counsel. After that, we will decide a course of action,” said Warren Dawson, a local lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

The appeals court reversed U.S. District Judge Elizabeth A. Kovachevich’s 1998 ruling that the district had fallen short of doing what it could to desegregate its schools. In its opinion, the court found that Judge Kovachevich had held Hillsborough County “to a higher standard than the law requires.”

Instead, the appellate judges found that the growing concentrations of black and Hispanic students in several Hillsborough schools were due to demographic shifts, and not the result of district practices.

Hillsborough County’s schools overall are about 51 percent white, 23 percent African-American, and 20 percent Hispanic. Black students make up more than 40 percent of the enrollment at 26 district schools, however, while another 24 schools have black enrollments of less than 10 percent. (“Bid To Stop Busing for Integration in Fla. District Draws Protests,” Dec. 13, 2000.)

According to the appellate panel’s 24-page opinion, “a school board has no obligation to remedy racial imbalances caused by external factors, such as demographic shifts, which are not the result of segregation and are beyond the board’s control.”

New Direction

In being declared “unitary,” or free of the vestiges of segregation, Hillsborough joins neighboring Pinellas and Polk counties, whose schools were released from desegregation orders last year.

Hillsborough officials say they will move ahead with a new student-assignment plan that has been hammered out in scores of community meetings. They hope the plan, which could be fully in place by 2004, will promote racial balance districtwide without mandatory busing.

Some 7,500 students, most of them black, are being bused from Tampa’s urban areas to suburban and rural schools to maintain racial diversity in district schools.

The new plan will divide the district into seven clusters, and use magnet schools to draw students from different communities within the clusters. The school board’s only black member, Dorris Ross Reddick, was the lone member to vote against the plan in November. She could not be reached for comment last week.

“The goal is to encourage students from the suburbs to go to the central city, and students from the central city to go to the suburbs,” said Mark A. Hart, a school district spokesman. “Despite the outcome of the appeal, we still have a moral and ethical responsibility to maintain an integrated school system.”

Sam Horton, the president of the Hillsborough County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, expressed doubts about the plan.

“There’s still a reluctance by some to go to an inner-city school, no matter what you call it,” he said. “There’s not much difference between what you can put in a magnet school and a conventional school, so when they don’t deliver, people go back to their original schools.”

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A version of this article appeared in the March 28, 2001 edition of Education Week as Hillsborough, Fla., District Declared ‘Unitary’

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