Houston school board’s race-based rezoning plan riles audience

WARNER ROBINS — While a rezoning forum at Houston County High School drew a crowd that filled the school theater Tuesday night, about half of the audience left after a discussion about zoning based on racial demographics.

The Houston County school board has zoned its schools to reflect the 36 percent of the school system’s black population based on a 2004 verbal recommendation from the Department of Justice, said Stephen Thublin, assistant superintendent for finance and business operations. That’s to enforce the integration court order from 1964.

Igniting angry outbursts from parents, one woman shouted, “We’re verbally telling you we don’t like it!”

With the people in the room shouting, school board chairman Tom Walmer paused the meeting.

“We will stop this meeting for those of you that can’t listen,” he said.

The meeting resumed a few minutes later, the room tense.

Parents gathered at the Houston County High School theater to talk about new school zones for the upcoming 2010-11 school year and plans for Veterans High School. They filled the room, forcing some to stand in the back.

More than 850 responses were submitted online through a survey on the school system’s zoning page, said Superintendent David Carpenter. Additional comments were submitted on green cards before the meeting.

School board attorney Jeffrey Grube moderated the meeting and chose submitted questions for the officials to answer.

The proposed zoning maps were created to fulfill four criteria:

Ÿ Reduce overcrowding in the high schools in Warner Robins, setting enrollment at about 1,800 for high schools in Warner Robins and 1,300 for Perry and Veterans high schools;

Ÿ Comply with a court order under the Justice Department guidelines, which requires school zones to reflect its black populations within 10 percentage points, which means the black population in Houston schools needs to be between 26 and 46 percent;

Ÿ Include proposed zones of growth within each high school zone;

Ÿ Remove zoning “islands” to make the zones contiguous.

The breakdown of the black population varies across the high schools in Houston County. Veterans and Houston County high schools would have 26 percent black students; Perry High School would have 33 percent; Warner Robins High would have 43 percent and Northside High School would have 46 percent, said Thublin.

“We want to disrupt as few students as possible,” he said.