Fox: Garcia memos are not 'inviolate word of God'

Sunday, November 8, 2009 at 11:45pm

Only a little more than a decade after finally winning release from desegregation decrees, Nashville’s school officials have been dragged back into federal court to face accusations they’re discriminating against black children.

At issue is the student assignment plan that went into effect this school year, ending the last vestige of cross-town busing to achieve racial balance in Nashville. With the plaintiffs in the NAACP-supported lawsuit — three black families — trying to show a racial motivation for the rezoning, the city’s white officialdom has been confronted with uncomfortable questions.

Did school board chairman David Fox openly advocate segregation in community meetings? Did he say, as the plaintiffs’ attorneys allege, that we should “put African-American students back in north Nashville where they live?”

Did state Rep. Mike Turner use racial terms to urge support for the rezoning plan in a closed-door meeting with Chamber of Commerce and NAACP officials? Did he say, as has been alleged, that “this rezoning plan will put the whites in their neighborhood schools and the blacks in their neighborhood schools, and everybody will be better off?”

Both men deny making those remarks, and U.S. District Judge John Nixon’s decision in the case could turn on whether he believes them.

But perhaps most important to the NAACP’s case are memorandums written by Pedro Garcia around the time the school board was forcing his resignation as superintendent in 2008.

One of these memos blew up in the trial last week. In it, Garcia paints white school board members as a gang of conniving segregationists who, acting in league with the Chamber of Commerce, tossed him out of his job for taking a principled stand against racism.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Larry Woods, schooling his less experienced rival — Metro lawyer Kevin Klein — managed to worm the memo into evidence through the back door on the trial’s first day. During testimony by just-retired board member George Thompson, Woods suddenly used an overhead projector to flash the memo onto a courtroom wall.

Despite Klein’s repeated objections that the document contains outrageous hearsay — “layers of hearsay,” in fact — Nixon said Woods could ask Thompson about it as long as Thompson was testifying about his own state of mind when he voted against the rezoning plan. The judge said he’d rule later about the admissibility of the document itself.

Arguing race was a factor

Woods says he thinks the memo is the proof he needs to nail shut his case. The NAACP is asking Nixon to throw out the rezoning plan and order the school board to come up with a new one acceptable to both sides.

To win, the plaintiffs need to demonstrate that race was at least one of the motivating factors in the board’s decision to adopt the rezoning plan, which stopped the busing of black children from north Nashville to the Hillwood cluster.

At the trial last week, Metro lawyers said the board wanted to return to neighborhood schools to encourage parental involvement, not to remove poor black children from Hillwood schools.

“Their intent was to provide opportunity for these students,” Klein said. “It had nothing to do with some discriminatory purpose.”

On the advice of lawyers, school board members aren’t talking to reporters about the lawsuit. But during an interview last year, Fox scoffed at Garcia’s memos.

He said Garcia was pushed out of office after six years as superintendent because he was inept, not because he opposed the rezoning plan. Anything Garcia says should be taken as sour grapes, Fox asserted.

“To treat a document from Garcia as if it’s some sort of inviolate word of God is remarkable,” Fox said.

According to Garcia, who’s refusing to testify himself, race was not just one factor; it was just about the only factor. In particular, he names then-board chair Marsha Warden as the ringleader of what he saw as a plot to remove as many black children from Hillwood High School as possible. Garcia writes:

“I know that the situation I find myself in today, and the pressure exerted upon me by Marsha Warden, is the direct result of my decision to fight against her desire to move the African American children from the Hillwood Cluster so she could be re-elected. Unfortunately, this is a racially charged issue. I took the stand to oppose re-segregating the district.”

At a raucous meeting peppered with protests from the audience, the school board adopted the new student assignment zones by a vote of 5-4 in July 2008, seven months after Garcia lost his job. One black member — Antioch’s Karen Johnson — joined the board’s four whites to make the majority.

In an affidavit, Warden, who did not seek re-election in 2008, denies Garcia’s accusations. To this reporter last year, she scoffed at his memos: “This is no more racially motivated than the man in the moon.”

The leaked memo

Garcia gave his memo to rezoning opponents on the school board, who leaked it to the media at the 11th hour to try to kill the plan.

“I doubt the veracity of this memo, OK?” Warden said. “Isn’t it really funny that this has just come out right before we’re voting?”

But at a public meeting in 2007, Garcia did denounce the plan as racist. He writes he decided to oppose it after visiting Brookmeade Elementary School, which had been scheduled to close. In an awakening for Garcia, teachers told the superintendent that the school should stay open because they said white students then attending private schools would return if black children were sent elsewhere.

“The faculty, in general, indicated the school would be full of white students presently attending private schools. After that meeting, I considered the implications of the plan.”

Garcia writes that after he came out against the plan, Warden told him in a private meeting “that my coming evaluation would be very bad for me and I ought to do everything possible to avoid it. ...After my comments, Marsha Warden added, ‘You have lost the confidence of the mayor, the confidence of the Chamber and the confidence of the Board. You need to leave.’ ”

6 Comments on this post:

By: artsmart on 11/9/09 at 6:18

Boy who do you trust in this mess? Having met a number of the players, I would not trust them to walk my dog. I would like to know how Garcia can get away with not testifying if they are using a document he supposedly wrote.

By: dogmrb on 11/9/09 at 8:13

Didn't David Fox get elected on a platform of supporting Dr. Garcia because the incumbent openly opposed Garcia's tenure as Director? So why did Fox change and when did he change? What does he know now that he didn't know then?

By: localboy on 11/9/09 at 9:09

Dont you know that Metro and the Board's hearts sank when they say the judge they drew? Talk about jurisprudence.

By: d4deli on 11/9/09 at 11:54

It is sad to see that race still comes into play with regard to Metro's schools. One would think that people could grow up and out of such nonsense.
In the meantime, the lines are drawn between neighborhood schools and busing. The reality is, you can't have it both ways. To have racial balance in schools, students must be bused to other schools. The neighborhoods are what they are, and for the most part, people have segregated themselves into prodominately white or black neighborhoods. In some places, neighborhoods are bi-racial, but not enough to make a difference for most neighborhood schools.

It will be interesting to see how all this plays out after all the mud slinging. In the end, the solution will remain divided (neighborhood schools vs. busing), and someone will still be unhappy.

By: JohnSevier on 11/9/09 at 1:35

Jeff, you have missed this pretty badly. The memo was not introduced into evidence. You say as much yourself when you observe that the judge will rule on it at a later time. If it is offered for the truth of the matter asserted, it is clearly inadmissible hearsay. If it is offered merely to show and opinion which was expressed by Garcia, then it is admissible only to the extent it informs the answer of the actual witness.
You say that the school's attorney was "schooled." But that was based on projecting an inadmissible document, which would, if a jury were hearing the case, run the danger of the imposition of sanctions on the older lawyer. Mr. Klein objected, and his object was good. Who schooled whom?

By: TaliaH on 11/9/09 at 10:43

Maybe people forget but white kids are bussed too. When I went to metro schools less than 3 yrs ago ( I went to metro from kindergarten through high school) they bussed whites and blacks way away from where you lived. I used to ride 40mins to school and 40mins back home even though there were schools much closer. I could've used that time to do other things such as my loads of homework or catch up on sleep from working, but some politician was too worried about trying to please parents who weren't in the schools. I was the minority in the schools I got bussed to and yes I got picked on. Usually white kids are too afraid to pick on black kids but put it in reverse and black kids have no problem picking on a single white kid. I do have balck friends and I don't hate black people, but I do think it would be better to leave kids in the neighborhoods they live. When you put kids in an area they're not from both racially and/or economically you're asking for trouble. Rich white kids pick on poor white kids and I'm sure it's the same for black kids. I got a scholarship and attended a white private school for 3rd grade and got picked on just as much there for not having money as I was in Metro for not being black. Kids don't like different people and really do imitate their parents. But what I'm saying is that if people really wanted to mix and go to a specific school they would live in that area close to that school. Most Americans want to say we are a racially accepting place, but in reality we aren't. Both blacks and whites still have major issues accepting each other and that's the problem. We still seggregate ourselves, no one is making anyone live in an area they don't want to. If a family doesn't want to be seggregated anymore then they need to move to a different neighborhood. I have lived in the projects before too and yes welfare is a choice. Right now with economy getting off of it is really hard but it can be done. My parents wanted me in a different school so they worked harder and we moved to a different area. There's no reason why any one else can't do the same. If you want to look at this way, this is America and it is the land of opportunities, you just got to jump on them. I do think that all schools should have the same equipment and same resources to give all students the same chances at things later on. So if that means taking rich school and knocking it down to a poor school's size and resources so be it. Or maybe they should learn to budget and upgrade the poorer schools to match the rich ones, but that's another rant.