Hull v. Quitman County Bd. of Educ.

Citation1 F.3d 1450
Decision Date02 September 1993
Docket NumberNo. 91-1903,91-1903
PartiesHULL, Hopson, Richardson, Franklin, et al., Plaintiffs, Jonathan Hankins, by his father and next friend John Hankins, et al., Etc., Intervenors-Appellants, v. The QUITMAN COUNTY BOARD OF EDUCATION, et al., Defendants-Appellees.
CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (5th Circuit)

Ronald W. Lewis, Franklin Turner, Law Offices of Ronald W. Lewis, Oxford, MS, for Jonathan Hankins, et al.

Azki Shah, Clarksdale, MS, for Bd. of Educ. of Quitman County, MS.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi.

Before JONES and BARKSDALE, Circuit Judges and JUSTICE *, District Judge.

EDITH H. JONES, Circuit Judge:

When the school board of Quitman County, Mississippi, voted unanimously to close its only remaining public school with a significant white student population, both black and white parents of students at the school complained. Their school, Crowder Elementary and Junior High, was the most academically proficient and racially balanced school in the district at that time. It was also by far the smallest school in a district chafing from serious financial problems. The district court refused to enjoin Crowder from being closed. The question before us is whether the district court abused its discretion in holding that the school board could choose to close Crowder consistent with its duty under a federal desegregation order. Unpalatable as that choice seems from an educational standpoint, this court sits not to review the wisdom of a school board's actions, but their constitutionality. We affirm the district court's order.


The public schools of Quitman County have been operating under a federal court desegregation order since 1969. A 1986 court order permitted the school district to close three of its four formerly all-white schools, Lambert, Marks, and Sledge. 1 Crowder, the fourth, remained open. The district continues to operate three other combined elementary and junior high schools, Southside, Westside, and Falcon, as well as Quitman County High School.

No doubt a major reason schools were closing is that the county's total population fell from 15,888 in 1970 to 10,490 in 1990. The racial mix remained relatively stable. Of those aged 17 and under in 1970, 33% were white and 67% were black. In 1990, the proportions were 29% and 71%, respectively. But because disproportionately white private schools sprang up after the 1969 desegregation order, by 1990, whites comprised a bare 10% of the district's 2,164 students.

At Crowder, whites remained a majority of the student population. In March, 1991, when the school board voted to close the school, it had 110 white students (73%) and 40 black students (27%). By contrast, the other three elementary and junior high schools in the district had much larger and overwhelmingly black student populations. At Southside there were 523 black students (90%) and 58 white students (10%); at Westside, 434 black (94%), 28 white (6%); and at Falcon, 436 black (98%), 9 white (2%). At Quitman County High School, 509 students were black (97%) and 17 were white (3%).

Crowder's enrollment was declining steadily, from 238 students in 1986 to 150 students by 1991. At the district court's hearing on whether to close Crowder, parents attributed this decline in part to uncertainty over whether the district would keep the school open. The school board had first publicly considered closing Crowder after receiving a consultant's recommendation in 1989.

Crowder's academic record is unmatched in Quitman County schools. Its students have fared better than all other students in the district on standardized tests. Its black students also scored significantly higher by standardized measures than other black students in the district.

In late 1990, faced with dire fiscal straits, the Quitman County School Board proposed closing Crowder and sending its students who chose to remain in the public schools elsewhere in the district. Ms. Sandra Biffle, the district's secretary, testified at the hearing below that closing Crowder would save the district $325,860.00, including savings in teachers' salaries, maintenance, insurance and repairs. Certain ambiguities and possible omissions from these calculations render uncertain the total amount saved. Nevertheless, the school district argued that its finances would be jeopardized unless it closed Crowder, and the district court agreed with this assessment.

Some of the district's savings from closing Crowder come from the expected loss of students who officials anticipated would choose to go to private school or would move to an adjoining public school district rather than transfer to one of the other public schools in Quitman County. Biffle stated that the district expected that Crowder's forty black students would transfer to one of the other three elementary or junior high schools, and nearly all of the 110 white students would drop out of Quitman County schools.

The school board failed explicitly to consider the effect of its decision to close Crowder upon the district court's longstanding desegregation order. Superintendent Wright testified that the district considered only the potential financial benefit of closing Crowder, not its effect on desegregation. It has never been asserted, however, that the board, three of whose five members are black, decided to close Crowder for the purpose of hindering desegregation.

The appellants, plaintiff-intervenor families of black children attending Crowder, challenged the school district's decision in federal court, seeking a preliminary injunction barring closure of Crowder. On July 18, 1991, the district court denied the preliminary injunction. This appeal ensued.


Before a preliminary injunction may issue, the plaintiffs must show that (1) there is a substantial likelihood they will prevail ultimately on the merits, (2) there is a substantial danger they will suffer irreparable injury if an injunction does not issue, (3) the threatened injury outweighs any harm to the defendant resulting from the injunction, and (4) the injunction will not harm the public interest. Roho, Inc. v. Marquis, 902 F.2d 356, 358 (5th Cir.1990). The district court concluded that the appellants failed to meet any of these requirements. Whether the injunction was properly denied is tested under an abuse of discretion standard. 2

The district court held that the plaintiff-intervenors failed to state a relevant constitutional claim. One black parent who testified at the hearing stated that he wanted his child to continue attending school with white children. 3 Other plaintiff parents stated only that they preferred their children to attend Crowder because it was closer to home and a good school. The court construed these parents' position most generously as a request that it impose a duty on the school board to maintain a system that (a) reflects the racial population of Quitman County in each school and (b) discourages white flight from the schools that remain open. The district court correctly held that the first noted duty does not exist in desegregation law. Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Bd. of Educ., 402 U.S. 1, 24, 91 S.Ct. 1267, 1280, 28 L.Ed.2d 554 (1971). We agree that the second duty, which might also be characterized as a duty not to perpetuate or re-establish a dual system, was not violated on the facts of this case.

The Supreme Court has stated that as long as a school district remains under the superintendence of a federal desegregation order, it has a duty "to take all steps necessary to eliminate the vestiges of the unconstitutional de jure system." Freeman v. Pitts, --- U.S. ----, ----, 112 S.Ct. 1430, 1443, 118 L.Ed.2d 108 (1992). Eliminating unconstitutional separate student attendance patterns has been a keystone of this remedy. Freeman, --- U.S. at ----, 112 S.Ct. at 1445. 4 The Supreme Court has recognized, however, that federal court injunctive power "may be exercised only on the basis of a constitutional violation," and that the "nature of the violation determines the scope of the remedy." Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Bd. of Educ., 402 U.S. at 16, 91 S.Ct. at 1276. Consequently, a district court may at some point decline to order "further remedies in the area of student assignments where racial imbalance is not traceable, in a proximate way, to constitutional violations." Freeman, --- U.S. at ----, 112 S.Ct. at 1446. The Court also observed that "with the passage of time the degree to which racial imbalances continue to represent vestiges of a constitutional violation may diminish, ..." Id. Freeman placed the burden of proof on the school district to show that a "current imbalance is not traceable, in a proximate way," to the prior constitutional violation. --- U.S. at ----, 112 S.Ct. at 1447. Freeman urged an intensely practical, fact-specific approach to these decisions, and it rejected the notion that "awkward," "inconvenient," or "even bizarre" measures must be employed to achieve racially balanced school assignments "in the late phases of carrying out a decree, when the imbalance is attributable neither to the prior de jure system nor to a later violation by the school district but rather to independent demographic forces." --- U.S. at ----, 112 S.Ct. at 1447. Freeman reinforced the Court's decision a year earlier to permit a district court to relinquish supervision under a desegregation decree if "the vestiges of discrimination [have] been eliminated to the extent practicable." Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell, 498 U.S. 237, 249, 111 S.Ct. 630, 638, 112 L.Ed.2d 715 (1991).

Freeman and Dowell might be technically distinguished from the case before us on the ground that those cases considered the circumstances under which federal court control of a school district may finally be relinquished. This appeal does not present exactly that issue, for Quitman County has not sought to...

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