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Panel sees busing as way to promote racial equity in schools here


Remember the battles in cities around the country in the ’60s and ’70s over court-ordered busing of students to desegregate public schools?

Well, Vero may be headed for a reprise of those battles a half century later.

The School District Equity Committee – which is charged with making sure Indian River County complies with a federally-mandated desegregation order – is recommending the district be rezoned, with some students bused to different schools than they now attend, so that schools will be more racially integrated.

The five-person Equity Committee plans to make the recommendation, along with others, to the School Board at the board’s Oct. 8 work session.

“I’m for it, if it achieves the needed results,” said Tony Brown, a member of the Equity Committee, referring to adjusting the geographical areas from which individual schools draw students. “But believe me, when we bring up rezoning, there’s going to be an uproar in the community.

“White residents whose kids go to Beachland are going to have a major coronary if you tell them that you’re going to start busing their children to Dodgertown” to meet the requirements of the federal desegregation order, which has been in effect in various forms since the 1960s.

Beachland students are predominately white while the majority of Dodgertown students are African-American, said Brown, who besides serving on the Equity Committee is the president of Indian River County’s chapter of the NAACP.

During the past several decades, during a period when the district was supposed to be making progress on racial integration and equity, some schools, including Gifford Middle School and Fellsmere Elementary, have become noticeably more segregated, Equity Committee Chairwoman Merchon Green said.

One reason for that segregation is “white flight,” meaning that white residents moved out of neighborhoods after black and, in the case of Fellsmere, Hispanic residents moved in. A Public School Choice option established by state law that allows parents to send their children to a school outside their neighborhood zone also has contributed to the disparity.

The Equity Committee plans to recommend that the school district determine if the entire district needs to be rezoned or just certain schools.

The School Board has already been thinking about the rezoning idea, prior to receiving the committee’s recommendation, though it has not had an in-depth public discussion about the matter so far.

At the most recent School Board meeting, Interim Superintendent Susan Moxley and Board Chairman Laura Zorc said rezoning is something a new superintendent needs to be prepared to handle, and a Leadership Profile identifying needed characteristics of a new district superintendent lists the ability to deal with potential “rezoning/redistricting” of school boundaries.

The Leadership Profile was presented to the school board in September by Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, the search firm the board hired to find a new superintendent.

“I’m hoping this board is committed to helping this committee” achieve the goals set out in the desegregation order, Board Member Mara Schiff told other board members at the board’s Sept. 24 meeting. “We have not done a good job of this in the past.”

The Equity Committee is also challenging the district to develop new strategies to recruit and hire more African-American teachers and improve student achievement, retention and graduation rates.

In Indian River County, the gap between white and black student proficiency levels in Math and English is about 30 percent. For example, 64.2 percent of white students were considered proficient in English Language Arts during the 2018-19 school year, compared to 34.8 percent for African-American students, according to state data. In Math, proficiency for white students was 66 percent, compared to 34.5 percent for African American students.

“How can we live with that gap?” Brown asked school administrators during the Equity Committee’s September meeting. “What is going on that other students’ needs are being met, but black students aren’t learning the same material?”

Several Equity Committee members say what progress was being made in closing the gap in scores and meeting other requirements of the federal desegregation order was lost during former superintendent Mark Rendell’s tenure from 2014-2019. Rendell resigned under pressure in May after the board informed him that they would not be renewing his contract past the 2019-20 school year.

Rendell, whose tenure was marked by poor decision-making and frequent controversy, almost immediately upon his arrival eliminated $20,000 that was earmarked annually to address equity issues, said Green and Deborah Long, the district’s coordinator of Equity and Instructional Support.

Instead of spending money to remedy inequity, under Rendell’s leadership the district sank more than $750,000 in a four-year legal battle with the NAACP in a failed effort to get Indian River County released from the federal desegregation order, claiming that sufficient progress had been made.
The Equity Committee, which is comprised of two NAACP representatives, two school employees and a community-at-large member, was formed as part of a 2018 court-ordered mandate requiring that the district comply with the federal order. The committee’s job is to oversee the district’s efforts to fix inequity and make recommendations to the school board to that effect.