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TUSD's decades-old desegregation case returns to 9th Circuit

The lingering effects of school segregation, which largely ended in Arizona in the 1950s, still echo through the courts more than four decades after a Hispanic mother claimed Tucson’s school district was “tri-ethnic,” offering a very different experiences for Black, Hispanic and white students.

Maria Mendoza’s 1974 lawsuit, later combined with others, eventually led to a court-ordered Unitary Status Plan that Tucson Unified School District must follow to escape court oversight.

On Monday, Mendoza’s attorneys asked the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse a 2018 court order they say removes federal oversight of parts the district’s plan. In that order, U.S. District Judge David C. Bury granted “partial unitary status” to the district’s transportation and student school assignment plans, meaning those areas are integrated.

“What we understand the district court to be saying is, ‘Hey district, you’ve satisfied your burden as to non-magnate school integration, and you can focus on other areas, and there is no mechanism for me to ensure that these completion plans will actually be implemented,’” Mendoza’s attorney Juan Rodriguez told the three-judge panel.

The school district’s attorney Bennett Cooper called partial unitary status “window dressing” that doesn’t change anything, because the overarching Unitary Status Plan still requires oversight, including annual reports to the court, until the district has met all the requirements in the overall plan.

“This is an interim assessment. It’s like a gold star on the report card,” Cooper said.

Bury’s order said specifically that the court would retain jurisdiction and that the purpose of the order was only to inform the community that progress was being made and to allow the district to focus on problem areas, Cooper said.

Another attorney for the plaintiffs, Ruben Salter, Jr., said Bury was “premature” in granting partial unitary status to the transportation and student assignment areas. Both are linked to quality of education and might require further changes to reach the overall unitary status.

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Locking in those areas with unitary status could endanger the overall goal, he said.

“My point is that we’ll never complete the rest of it,” Salter told the panel.

Until 1951, Arizona law required school districts to segregate Black students. In 1951, when state law changed to allow but not require segregation, the Tucson district closed its one school for Black elementary students and sent those kids to neighborhood schools, according to a brief filed by TUSD in January.

In 1974, Mendoza filed a class action on behalf of her son, then a junior high student, claiming the district was still intentionally discriminating against minority students. That lawsuit was later combined with other parents’ lawsuits, and the U.S. government joined as a plaintiff.

“Defendants have maintained their tri-ethnic school system by means of discriminatory construction policies, segregatory zone lines, racially imbalanced feeder patterns, free transfer policies, tracking, and discriminatory staff assignments,” Mendoza claimed.

The district was also discriminating via curriculum, offering four years of foreign language and other college preparatory classes at Anglo schools but not at predominantly Hispanic schools, the lawsuit claimed.

In 1978, District Judge William C. Frey found that although some of the practices in Mendoza’s complaint were valid civil rights violations dating to the 1950s and 1960s, the district was not discriminating in 1978. He noted most of the effects of those policies had been relieved over time and that any lingering racial imbalance in the school system was not because of those policies, TUSD noted.

The plaintiffs and the district then filed a stipulated settlement order that included targets for the district. By 2008, the district court found that the school district had eliminated the vestiges of segregation and was fully unified racially, according to the brief.

The plaintiffs appealed, and the 9th Circuit reversed that ruling in 2011, citing a lack of plans to monitor racial imbalance. The appeals court remanded the case to the lower court and appointed a special master, Willis Hawley, to oversee creation of a plan to ensure that the district is maintaining a unified district.

Monday’s appeal of the 2018 court order was heard by U.S. Circuit Judges Kim McClane Wardlaw, a Bill Clinton appointee; Sandra Segal Ikuta, appointed by George W. Bush; and U.S. District Judge Hilda Tagle, also a Clinton appointee sitting by designation from the Southern District of Texas.

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Kevin Asher/TucsonSentinel.com

A pro-Ethnic Studies demonstrator outside TUSD headquarters in 2011.