Alabama schools close as federal judge considers fate of district desegregation plan

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A few weeks ago, Chambers County was inching closer and closer to a plan to desegregate its schools. But now school leaders and community members are at a crossroads – and must wait for a federal judge to decide how to reconfigure three schools.

This summer, Chambers County Schools, the U.S. Department of Justice and private plaintiffs represented by the Legal Defense Fund settled on a plan to close and consolidate several schools throughout the district.

The plan would release the small, rural Alabama school district from federal oversight in a decades-old desegregation case. In some sense, the deal was already done: Teachers held a balloon release at Five Points Elementary in May before it closed. At J.P. Powell Middle School in LaFayette, teachers have already packed up dozens of boxes of classroom supplies.

Read more Ed Lab: Alabama students struggle with the ACT. Here’s how some schools bridge gaps.

After months of negotiations, and a few community meetings, the parties agreed to a gradual consolidation plan, which would create a magnet school located in a predominantly Black area of the county, and eventually combine the district’s two high schools into one.

All that was left was a sign-off by Keith Watkins, a federal judge who was appointed to the Alabama Middle District Court in 2005 by former President George W. Bush.

But the plan began to falter Thursday morning, as residents attended the first of what may be several community hearings to come. Many people remain skeptical about the district’s ability to deliver what was promised in the desegregation order – equal opportunities to Black and white students, many of whom live on opposite sides of the county and attend schools with varying levels of course offerings, funding and instructional support, district leaders and plaintiffs said.

“This is a family school and these kids are hurt,” said Mary Hebert, who has a rising fourth grader at Five Points.

Resident Yolanda Ratchford is from LaFayette, a majority-Black town in the district that holds one of the middle schools that is preparing to close. She turned back to look at Black and white community members sitting on opposite sides of the courtroom pews.

“Shame on all of us for even being here 50 years later,” she said, referring to the 57 year-old court case still binding the district. “Look at us! We’re separate now!”

In recent weeks, Watkins decided to halt the plan amid requests for more feedback from community members like Hebert and Ratchford, who stand to lose school buildings in their areas.

“This case is way, way too old,” Watkins said at the hearing on Thursday. “…[But] I didn’t want to see, after one hot summer, things get worse.”

School closures

The district’s desegregation plan has lots of moving parts. It plans to close some schools immediately, while others may take a while.

Pending approval, the district plans to immediately close Five Points Elementary School on the north side of the county – which is one of the most diverse schools in the district – and J.P. Powell Middle School in LaFayette, to form a K-8 magnet school in LaFayette.

It also plans to close LaFayette-Lanier Elementary School, which will merge into Fairfax Elementary this fall. Both of those schools are located in Valley, which is majority-white.

The following year – or whenever the district breaks ground on a new school – students at majority-Black LaFayette High School will transfer to majority-white Valley High until the building is complete. District leaders haven’t settled on where the site will be located, but noted that whatever decision they reach will be an equitable one.

Many of those plans, but especially those to build a new high school, left LaFayette residents concerned. Several cited previous promises to build a new school in their area – plans that never came to fruition, they said.

“We don’t have trust in the district because they’ve been dishonest with us for years and years,” said Tammy Seroyer, a LaFayette High School graduate who has a child who will be a senior at the high school this fall.

Seroyer, along with many LaFayette community members, parents, pastors and former school employees, loaded three buses to make the 30-minute trek to Opelika Thursday, where they filed into a full courtroom to make their voices heard. An online petition has garnered more than 500 signatures.

GeDá Jones Herbert, who represents LaFayette families on behalf of the Legal Defense Fund, originally agreed to the settlement, but reversed course after hearing more concerns from clients. She said the district failed to be fully transparent with Black students and parents who still have questions about school start times, funding, and how the district will integrate successfully and in a way that doesn’t pose an undue burden on Black families.

“Many of those questions remain today,” Jones Herbert told the judge.

Of about a dozen speakers, most said they weren’t opposed to consolidation, but were concerned about what may – or may not – happen in the interim.

Some worried about what elementary school closures might mean for small towns in the county. Many others were fighting for their city, LaFayette, which they feared would dwindle if a high school were ultimately built on the Valley side.

LaFayette mayor Kenneth Vines, a 1983 graduate of LaFayette High School, called conditions at the city’s schools “deplorable,” but feared a decision made too soon might lead to further disinvestment. He pitched in to help with the new high school’s location, offering up about 160 acres of land near the county seat.

Meanwhile, Five Points Mayor Jeff Monroe declined to take a stance on the plan, but noted that his empty school building could serve as a community center. Leaders of the town of 114 recently voted to use the empty property to house an after school program and other community services.

His comments were met with head shakes and surprise from some members of the audience, who worried schools in the area and others were forced to close prematurely, without a proper goodbye.

Next steps

But a few community members, like Denise Clark, said they’re tired of waiting on a plan that, they feel, would finally afford students across the district with equal opportunities.

“When both sides of our county give up something, we’re close to a good deal,” said Clark, a business owner who said she’s involved in several of the schools on both sides of the county.

She wants the district to move forward with the plan, but she also wants residents to put more money behind it.

“Together we can build first-class facilities,” she said.

Shanice Smith runs a college readiness program called UNITE at LaFayette High School with her husband Travis Smith, who is consulting the district on desegregation efforts. She said the STEAM academy will offer more opportunities to students in schools like Five Points, which currently only has one teacher for every two grades. She said she’s also in talks with local groups to create a community center, which she hopes will bridge gaps in wraparound services.

Now, with the full proposal indefinitely stalled, district leaders are scrambling to gain approval for immediate closures of two elementary schools and one middle school.

For Superintendent Casey Chambley, moving forward with the plan would mean saving hundreds of thousands of dollars in operating costs, and it could help curb urgent issues, like record teacher retirements, learning loss and steadily declining enrollment.

As a former administrator at both high schools, he believes consolidation is the only way to fix longstanding inequities. But he’s worried that if the system does nothing, it’ll be bankrupt within 10 years.

“If there was a perfect storm or a perfect time for this consolidation to take place, it was now,” he said.

Watkins said he plans to issue a ruling on the elementary and middle school closures as early as Friday, July 1.

A future ruling on the entire desegregation plan, which includes building a new high school, will likely follow more hearings and potentially a trial, he said.

Rebecca Griesbach is a member of The Alabama Education Lab team at She is supported through a partnership with Report for America. Learn more here and contribute to support the team here.

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