A federal judge has asked the Peach County school district and the Department of Justice to resolve whether the county must still comply with a decades-old desegregation order, which could help clear the way for a new charter school there.
U.S. District Judge Marc Treadwell issued the order Wednesday, asking the school district and the Justice Department to reach a resolution by March 11. The issue is important because the county made a 1988 request to be granted unitary status -- meaning it would no longer be part of a consent order that desegregated several Georgia school districts years earlier.
Because Peach County’s status isn’t clear, the Justice Department is holding up a bid by the new Byron Peach Charter School Inc. to establish itself.
“Peach County’s position, which they’ve been insistent throughout the process, is that we needed preapproval by the DOJ,” said Rob Fortson, an attorney representing the charter school.
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Repeated attempts to reach attorneys for the school district and the Justice Department for comment Friday were unsuccessful.
The school district previously rejected the new charter school, leaving that school’s officials to get approval from the state charter commission.
The order notes that the school district took the position that the Justice Department and the court must determine “whether authorizing a charter school in the city of Byron provides the greatest benefit for all Peach County children and complies with the Desegregation Order dated Jan. 24, 1974.”
The Justice Department noted that the school district “has not sought unitary status” and thus remains subject to the consent order. Unitary school systems are those that have been deemed desegregated and released from judicial oversight.
The department opposes the motion for authorization to operate a charter school. The government claims that Byron Peach Charter School Inc. “has not demonstrated that its proposed location, lack of transportation services, and priority enrollment system will not promote the re-segregation of high school students” in Peach County, a court document said.
Fortson, however, said the charter school would comply with the law by not giving any sort of enrollment priority because of race. Should applications to the school exceed the school’s enrollment numbers, the charter school would hold a blind lottery. The only exemptions to the lottery would be children of the school’s board of governors or staff members, Fortson said.
“We would have countywide enrollment,” he said.
Treadwell’s order, however, notes that the government and the school district “overlooked the fact” that they jointly moved to have the 1974 order dismissed because both parties agreed that the district had achieved and maintained a unitary status “in all respects for several years, and that the judgment of this court has been fully satisfied,” quoting from the 1988 motion.
There appears to be no ruling or court order in the matter, however, leaving the district without official unitary status.
Should Peach County attain that status, it would render the Justice Department’s intervention moot, because “once a unitary school system has been attained, ... the United States believes it is clear that the role of the federal court should cease and that the case should be dismissed,” Treadwell’s order noted.
Fortson said he thinks it’s the first time a Georgia charter school is having to seek preclearance from the Justice Department.
The school district last faced a desegregation issue in 2009, when the county was opening two new elementary schools. Some residents questioned how the boundaries for those schools were drawn, but then-Superintendent Susan Clark said the boundaries were drawn based on recommendations from the Justice Department.
Officials with Byron Peach Charter School Inc. hope that once the current issue is resolved, organizers will have cleared the final hurdle to opening the school.
“At the end of the day, we’re going to get approved,” board chairman Roy Lewis said. “It’s just a matter of going through the process. We’re talking back and forth with the Justice Department trying to come to an agreement so it can go to the judge.”
Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report. To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334. To contact writer Jeremy Timmerman, call 744-4331.
A map of every county school system in Georgia that had a federal desegregation order. Several county systems have had the orders lifted.
Graphic by Jonathan Heeter/The Telegraph