By Kayleigh Butterfield

On June 3, 2015, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the civil case Everett v. Pitt County Board of Education. A group of parents and the Pitt County Coalition for Educating Black Children (“Plaintiffs”) appealed the district court’s decision for the defendant, the Pitt County Board of Education (“Board”). The district court granted the Board’s motion for declaration of unitary status and dismissed Plaintiff’s request for an injunction as moot. The Fourth Circuit concluded that the district court acted within its discretion to address the Board’s motion before ruling on Plaintiff’s motion for injunctive relief, and that the district court did not clearly err in determining that the school district was unitary. Therefore, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision.

The Struggle to Desegregate

In 1970, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina entered two desegregation orders against the Greenville City and Pitt County Boards of Education. The district court found that both boards were operating racially segregated schools and required them to submit desegregation plans in order to create a unitary school district. The boards complied with those orders, and the cases remained closed for over thirty-five years. In 1986, the two boards merged into the current, consolidated Board.

In 2008, the Board sought to reopen the cases in response to a discrimination complaint filed against it because of the student assignment plan of the 2006-07 school year. The complaints concerned the Board’s explicit use of race in the assignment plan. The district court eventually approved a settlement between the two parties and directed them to work together in attaining a unitary status for the school district.

In 2011, Plaintiffs moved to enjoin the implementation of the Board’s 2011-12 student assignment plan on the basis that it failed to move the district toward unitary status. The district court denied the motion, but the Fourth Circuit vacated, determining that the district court failed to place the burden on the Board to show that the plan moved the district toward unitary status. On remand, the Board moved for a declaration of unitary status. The district court granted the Board’s motion after applying the factors from Green v. County School Board of New Kent County to the evidence presented at trial. The district court then dismissed Plaintiff’s motion for injunctive relief as moot.

Standard of Review

The Fourth Circuit reviewed the district court’s decision to address the unitary status of the school district for abuse of discretion. The determination that the school district is unitary was reviewed for clear error.

Declaration of Unitary Status is Not Unlawfully Retroactive

Under Green, a school district reaches unitary status when it “is devoid of racial discrimination in regard to faculty, staff, transportation, extracurricular activities, facilities, and pupil assignment.” These requirements are commonly referred to as the “Green factors.” Until a school district meets those factors, there is a presumption that existing racial disparities are causally related to prior segregation and any burden to prove otherwise lies with the school board. However, once a district achieves unitary status, this presumption ends and the burden shifts to the plaintiffs to show discriminatory intent on the part of the school board. This burden shifts not at the time the district court declares a school district unitary, but when the court determines the school district became unitary.

Because of this burden-shifting framework, the Fourth Circuit held that the district court acted well within its discretion to first establish whether the school district was unitary at the time the 2011-12 assignment plan was implemented. The Fourth Circuit reasoned that had the district court been forced to consider the assignment plan first, it would have had to inefficiently assume a presumption of segregation that it would later determine did not exist. The Fourth Circuit also upheld the dismissal of Plaintiff’s motion for injunction, reasoning that the motion was based solely on the allegation that the plan moved the district away from a unitary status, and was therefore moot once the district court established that the school district was unitary.

No Clear Error in Finding School District Unitary

In order to find a school district unitary, the district court must determine that (1) the district has “complied in good faith with the desegregation decree since it was entered,” and (2) “the vestiges of past discrimination [have] been eliminated to the extent practicable.” Bd. of Educ. of Okla. City Pub. Schs. v. Dowell, 498 U.S. 237, 246 (1991).

In determining whether the second requirement has been met, the court will consider the Green factors as listed above.

The Fourth Circuit reexamined the testimony of both expert witnesses and found that there was substantial evidence for the district court to find for the Board on each of the Green factors. The data concerning student assignment prompted the most discussion, but the Fourth Circuit ultimately determined that the Board’s data was sufficiently reliable for a finding in its favor.

Finally, the Fourth Circuit found that the Board had complied in good faith as evidenced largely by the fact that the original desegregation cases had remained closed and undisturbed for over thirty-five years.

Fourth Circuit Affirms

For the above reasons, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s declaration of unitary status and dismissal of Plaintiff’s motion for injunctive relief. Judge Wynn dissented, arguing primarily that the district court erred in declaring the school district unitary without first determining whether it was moving towards a unitary status with the 2011-12 assignment plan.