The Webster Parish School Board (WPSB) met public opposition Monday night when an executive session was called to discuss a 47-year-old lawsuit.
Reading from legal statutes, community advocate Samuel Mims asked the board why an executive session was needed.
"A public body may hold an executive session for one or more of the following reasons: a strategy session or negotiation with respect to collective bargaining, respective litigation after formal demand or litigation when an open meeting would have a detrimental effect on the bargaining litigation of the public body," Mims said. "My contention is that first of all, there is no litigation proposed or pending. The court order is a done deal. It is not up for discussion. It's a closed matter. So this statute that you are quoting (to go into executive session) does not give you the right to have an executive session, in my opinion."
Mims said he thought the board would be discussing whether or not it would apply for unitary status.
"You are an elected body, and I am a tax payer. I have a right to listen to that discussion unless you have justification for an executive session," Mims said. "Whatever you are going to discuss in the executive session should be said in an open meeting."
School board attorney Bob Hammonds said litigation is pending and has been since 1965, which merits the executive session.
"If it was over, then you wouldn't need to consider filing for unitary status. The only reason you file for unitary status is to end the lawsuit, which has been pending now for 47 years," Hammonds said. "If the suit filed in 1965 is over, then what court order is this school board complying with today? Because if there is no court case, there is no court order.
"If you seek unitary status what you are telling the court is we think we have satisfied all the requirements and are ready to govern our own affairs," he continued. "When you are declared unitary, the case is dismissed and the case is at that point ended and full control returns to the board to make all decisions."
Rev. T. Alexander Knapp disagreed with Hammonds, who represents approximately 55 school boards in Louisiana and has been through 18 desegregation cases in the last 35 years.
"Normally, when a judge rules, that ends the case and finalizes it," Knapp said. "I understand you are under the advice from your attorney, but I would advise you to seek guidance elsewhere because you don't want to end up with more lawsuits filed."
Knapp said he was under the impression the board would be more open with the public, and an executive session raised a red flag with him.
"The last time this came up, you guys said you would put in a workshop in order to bring awareness to the community in an effective fashion," Knapp said. "An executive session will not accomplish that. I am asking this board to do what they originally said, and have this workshop as an open body."
Mims agreed with Knapp and said he felt his rights were being violated.
"We don't have to act like Congress and the President," Mims said. "We are a small town. All of here know each other. There is no reason we can't sort this out among ourselves without getting all irritated."
Hammonds reminded the board of their rights as his clients.
"Every client has a right to meet with his attorney," Hammonds said. "If anyone in this room was in a lawsuit, they would not want the other side to listen in to the conversation between themselves and their attorney. That is the American system of justice and it even applies to school boards.
"After I meet with you (the board) privately, if you want to come out and have any of that said in an open meeting, if you want to have a workshop, if you want to have another meeting in the future where more information is shared, that is fine," Hammons said.
District 9 board member Frankie Mitchell told the board she did not understand an executive meeting would be held until she received her agenda packet and was under the impression workshops were being planned.
Webster Parish Superintendent Steve Dozier said he was not planning any workshops and had conveyed to Mitchell a closed session would be necessary.
Malachi Ridgel, board member for District 2, agreed with Knapp and Mims.
"What is wrong with the public hearing what you're going to say in executive session?" Ridgel asked. "I have some questions I want to ask and I want the public to hear it. I think this is wrong, and I think it should be delayed and we need to have a workshop."
Hammonds said discussing strengths and weaknesses of the board's litigating position would not be advantageous.
"These cases are difficult enough has it is ... and is why the law allows you to have an executive session to begin with," Hammonds said.
Ronnie Broughton, District 8, said involving the community in the process is vital.
"I think we do need an executive session, but I will not vote for any movement past this executive session with out the understanding that we have at least one community meeting. I believe that would be the proper thing for us to do."
With all board members present, members who voted in opposition to going into executive session were Ouida Garner, Linda Kinsey, Mitchell and Ridgel.
After returning to the open meeting, board president Johnnye Kennon said no action would be taken but asked Hammonds to brief the audience on what was discussed.
"In any school desegregation case they look at what are called "Green Factors," to determine whether or not it is time for judicial oversight to end," Hammonds said.
The six green factors include transportation, extra curricular activities, facilities, staff assignments, teacher assignments and student assignments.
A seventh factor, "Good Faith," is looked at to see if the board has ever been held in contempt.
"This case has been ongoing for the past 47 years," Hammonds said. "In the past 30 years there have only been two pleading filed by the plaintiffs. If this school board had not been complying with the court order, I would suspect that something would have been filed within that time and the court would have ruled. I think it is clear that the school board has complied with the good faith factor."
In Hammonds' opinion, no proof of discrimination has been submitted in the areas of facilities, transportation and extra curricular activities.
"Because of this consolidation this board went into a couple of years ago on the north end of the parish, its schools are better desegregated than they have ever been in the history of Webster Parish," he said. "When you look at staff assignment, 40 percent of administrators, as of this date are African-American. Which is significantly higher than any requirement that has ever been ordered by the court. For these reasons, it seems to me the board has fairly well satisfied the standards set by the courts."
Hammonds noted the U.S. Supreme Court desires to give up their oversight as the earliest possible convince so that the cases and issues can be returned to locally elected officials.
"The courts have said repeatedly, we don't know anything about education and want out of the education business," Hammonds said. "They say as soon as they have satisfied the stipulations, we want to settle the case and give control back to the school board."