While some worry that the proposed middle school rezoning plan will undo years of desegregation efforts and land Knox County Schools in federal court, the two players most likely to be on opposite sides of the courtroom look at the issue from very different perspectives, but do not seem overly concerned about that possibility – for now.
“This (plan) is a good first step, as far as it goes,” said NAACP president John Butler, who filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights after the agreement to build a new Gibbs Middle School was unveiled.
Knox County has built new schools in recent years only in predominantly white communities.
“Now that you are zoning (minority students) back in, we need to have facilities and staffs looked at and steps taken to eliminate inequity,” said Butler. He wants new, state-of-the-art middle and high schools staffed with faculties who understand the needs of minority students. He will not withdraw the complaint, even after Buzz Thomas, interim superintendent, asked him to do so.
Knox County Law Director Bud Armstrong said desegregation was not the primary purpose of the 1991 rezoning plan that closed schools and bused inner city kids to distant parts of the county. He cited a 1991 opinion by U.S. District Court Judge Leon Jordan that found no evidence of intentional discrimination by Knox County Schools.
Jordan said the only question the court could ask was “whether the motivation in adopting the plan was invidious discrimination on the basis of race, and the Court finds that there was not.”
Armstrong said: “They did not close Gibbs and move them to Holston Middle School because those schools were segregated. Conversely, if they reopen Gibbs, it won’t be to resegregate those schools.”
Whether intended or not, the rezoning will result in some schools having a higher percentage of African-Americans while others have lower. To paraphrase former school board chair Sam Anderson: We can be sure black kids are treated fairly when they are sitting next to a white kid and both are treated the same.
That’s what the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 1954 (Brown vs. The Board of Education): “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” Are we entering the post-Brown era?