Friday, July 17, 2009

School-suit parent blasts lawyer

Friday, July 17, 2009
By Jenny Hurwitz
West Bank bureau

Citing mounting concerns about inadequate representation in the Jefferson Parish public school system's desegregation process, a group of black parents, teachers and community members is meeting this weekend to assess the efforts of the plaintiffs' attorney in the lawsuit.

Juantina Johnson, a black parent who is organizing two meetings, said she and others were "shocked" to discover that attorney Gideon Carter of Baton Rouge was supposed to be representing people like her, as well as all black teachers, administrators and students in the district.

As the plaintiffs' attorney, Carter represents the interests of all African-Americans in the school system, although he generally consults with a select group on litigation matters.

"Our outrage comes from the fact we didn't know he was our attorney, nor have we actively been involved in the case," said Johnson, who lives in Westwego. "We want a voice in these decisions. If someone is going to represent us, then they should ask us what it is we want."

Johnson already has collected about 200 signatures from parents and district employees who share her general concerns about the direction of the school system under the desegregation order. She has forwarded the signatures to Carter and to U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt, who is overseeing the lawsuit, she said.

Johnson said parents are still upset with the boundary changes and new regulations prohibiting students from attending schools outside their home attendance zones. She also said some parents felt they had no say in the district's decision to reconfigure boundary lines on the West Bank, meant to ease overcrowding at Catherine Strehle Elementary in Avondale.

If Carter is unwilling to work with them, Johnson said she could ask Engelhardt to allow her to intervene, making her group a third party to the lawsuit. She is also considering asking the judge to grant her group the right to replace Carter with another attorney, she said. She hopes to discuss these issues at the meetings, to be held on Saturday.

Meanwhile, Carter said he will be unable to attend because of a prior conflict.

"They didn't ask if it was convenient for me to be there," Carter said. "When I talked to them, I let them know I couldn't be there. Apparently they're going to hold the meeting without me."

Carter also questioned how Johnson and other parents could technically go about removing him as the plaintiffs' attorney in the case.

"They're not the only interest I represent in the litigation," Carter said. "I represent the interest of students as well. So I don't know what authority they have."

Through the desegregation process, the district is seeking to balance all educational services for black and white students throughout the parish. To achieve that aim, the order ushered in a number of sweeping changes, including new attendance zones, teacher transfers and facilities improvements in areas that had been neglected previously.

Carter said he invited Johnson and others to voice their concerns at upcoming community meetings, to be held later this summer by the district's desegregation task force. Formed in 2006 when revisiting the desegregation issue first came to light, the task force, comprised of black educators and community leaders, functions as a liaison between the black community and the school district.

Carter also cited his attendance at a series of public forums held last year before the order was approved. Since the start of the process, he has regularly consulted with the task force and certain members of the black community, including Lena Vern Dandridge-Houston, whose father filed the lawsuit that paved the way for the district's original 1971 desegregation order.

"If they have issues, I want to hear their complaints," he said. "But you can't just schedule a meeting and expect that I'm going to show up at your convenience."

The meetings Saturday are open only to black parents, school system employees and members of the community, who are considered plaintiffs under the order, Johnson said.

The first meeting will be held at Mount Hermon Baptist Church in Avondale at noon. The second, at Providence Baptist Church in River Ridge, starts at 5 p.m.

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