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School attorney rapped for rogue desegregation filing

Photo: School Superintendent Moore sharing unhappiness over desegregation report with Equity Committee Chair Merchon Green.

Newly appointed School Superintendent David Moore says a rogue desegregation “progress” report written and submitted to a federal judge by School Board attorney Suzanne D’Agresta has damaged the school district’s credibility and undermined relations with the NAACP and the district’s Equity Committee.

The report, which claims the district is complying with a 52-year-old federal desegregation order, included false and misleading information and was not authorized by the Indian River County School Board, Moore and the board acknowledged.

“We can’t undo what’s been done,” Moore said at the board’s Dec. 10 meeting. “But we can take steps to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Neither the School Board or Moore would say what, if any actions would be taken against D’Agresta for writing and submitting the report without the board’s knowledge or permission.

The board, which has been increasingly critical of D’Agresta’s counsel, has previously indicated publicly it may not renew her contract, which expires in March.

During an Oct. 30 meeting, the School Board, NAACP and the Equity Committee agreed all three would collaborate on the report, which had to be submitted to U.S District Judge Kathleen Williams by Dec. 14.

After learning that D’Agresta had already written the report without collaboration, the NAACP and the Equity Committee submitted an addendum with additional information, but D’Agresta refused to include it in her report, Equity Committee Chairman Merchon Green told the board on Dec. 10.

Meanwhile, the School Board was not aware its attorney had gone ahead and written the report independently until it was informed of that by the NAACP.

The NAACP and the Equity Committee last week submitted a separate progress report to Williams that is critical of the school district. Brown said the report informs the judge that D’Agresta’s report was not a collaboration and had been submitted without the knowledge of the NAACP – a violation of the judge’s orders.

The desegregation order was put in place in the 1960s and has been amended since then to make the NAACP the plaintiff in the lawsuit that resulted in the order.

Seeing little progress in improving African-American student academic performance and graduation rates and increasing the number of African-American teachers in county schools, the NAACP sued the district several years ago to force compliance with the order.

That led to, among other things, creation of the five-member Equity Committee made up of people chosen by the school district and the NAACP.

After a year-long investigation, the Equity Committee concluded the school district was failing to comply in nine of 11 areas specified by the court as needing improvement.

The School Board accepted and concurred with those findings and agreed to write the collaborative report to update Williams about the district’s progress.

Under the leadership of former superintendent Mark Rendell, the school district spent more than $750,000 in legal fees to make the case that Indian River County schools were compliant with the federal desegregation order and get the district out from under court supervision.

After Rendell was ousted, a school board with new members elected in 2018 and Interim Superintendent Susan Moxley reversed courses dramatically, and committed to work with the NAACP and Equity Committee to improve the situation.

That new era of cooperation and determination to help African-American students be more successful in school was affirmed by Moore when he was hired earlier this month, but D’Agresta’s actions have thrown a wrench in the works, renewing old doubts about the district’s good faith.

Green told the board that D’Agresta’s report was “misleading,” and vaguely worded to give the false impression that the district was complying with the desegregation order. It did not make any reference to the Equity Committee’s report finding the school district non-complaint with most of the federal order.

“I was presented with Ms. D’Agresta’s draft of the annual report and it was extremely flawed,” Green told the School Board. “The report outlined the areas being monitored, but did not state the progress, or lack of progress in those areas.

“The proposed draft appeared to inundate the court with unnecessary information without being precise or specific about the district’s progress. It lacked transparency and it negated everything the Equity Committee worked so diligently to accomplish.”  

Moore said D’Agresta’s actions had damaged the school district’s credibility and undermined relations with the NAACP and the district’s Equity Committee.

“This is a critical issue,” he said at the Dec. 10 meeting. “There has been some great work done and we’re going to have to develop a plan to keep the lines of communication open with the NAACP and the Equity Committee.”

School Board member Mara Schiff seconded Moore’s comment: “It’s clear we need to move forward and collaborate better with the NAACP,” she said, but Green and NAACP President Tony Brown, angered by the rogue report, called Schiff’s comments “rhetoric without substance.”

Brown said the NAACP is considering additional legal action against the district because of D’Agresta’s actions.

D’Agresta did not respond to an email query from Vero Beach 32963 sent after the Dec. 10 meeting seeking comment about the controversy.