Attorneys sparred Tuesday over potentially crucial evidence on the first day of the trial of the NAACP-backed discrimination lawsuit against the Metro Nashville school system — a memorandum in which ousted superintendent Pedro Garcia denounces the new student assignment plan as a segregationist fraud.
"This is the director of schools saying this rezoning plan is illegal in its intent," NAACP attorney Larry Woods said, urging U.S. District Judge John Nixon to allow plaintiffs to use the memo to make their case.
But Metro lawyer Kevin Klein dismissed it as "layers of hearsay" and repeatedly objected as Woods used a overhead projector to flash the memo on to a wall of the courtroom. Nixon said he would rule later about the memo's admissibility, but he allowed Woods to question just-retired school board member George Thompson about it.
Garcia gave the memo to Thompson around the time he was forced out of office in January 2008, and Thompson leaked it to the media just before the school board adopted the plan in July of that year. Nixon ruled Thompson could refer to the memo while testifying about "his own state of mind" as the board considered the rezoning plan.
In the memo, Garcia, who is refusing to testify in the case, says he was under heavy pressure to agree to the rezoning plan. He writes Kathy Neville, a former board member, told him then-board chair Marsha Warden "was facing significant pressure from the Hillwood cluster parents to get rid of the African-American students presently assigned to that cluster.
"Unfortunately, this is a racially charged issue," Garcia writes. "I took the stand to oppose resegregating the district. It was the right stand and I would do it again."
"I called it skulduggery," Thompson, who is black, testified. "There was so much of it going on."
The lawsuit asks Nixon to toss out the student rezoning plan, which ended the busing of black children from north Nashville to the white suburbs this school year. The NAACP contends it resegregates schools and discriminates against black children by consigning them to substandard educations in north Nashville's Pearl-Cohn schools.
In 2007, Garcia called the proposal "a racist plan" at one point in a public meeting, Thompson testified. In his memo, Garcia claims he was threatened, intimidated and eventually forced out of office for opposing the plan.
Thompson, who retired from the board in 2008 after 14 years in office, testified he voted against the plan because he believes it discriminates against black children. The school board voted 5-4 for the plan despite opposition from many black leaders.
"I grew up in Nashville when we had segregated schools," said Thompson, who graduated from the old Pearl High School in 1961. "I saw the battle for equality and the battle against racially isolated schools right here in this city."
In his opening statement, Klein defended the rezoning plan as giving parents more choice and children more opportunities. But black parents testified the school system denied their children the schools of their choice.
Klein told the judge the community task force that developed the plan decided "one size does not fit all. They decided, 'We're not going to make students in this Pearl-Cohn cluster go across town. We'll ask them, is it better for you to go close to home or is it better for you to continue to go across town.' That was their break-through.
"Their intent was to provide choice for these students," Klein said. "Their intent was to provide opportunity for these students. It had nothing to do with some discriminatory purpose."
Under the rezoning plan, north Nashville students who had been attending schools in the Hillwood cluster were promised they could finish there, even though cross-town busing had been ended. But Jeffrey and Frances Spurlock said their daughter wasn't allowed to continue going to school in Bellevue but was instead forced to go to a north Nashville school. Carroll Lewis, another plaintiff in the lawsuit, said her granddaughter also was denied her choice to go to Bellevue.
"I had the option of putting my children in two failing schools," Frances Spurlock testified. "Why would they only offer us schools that are not up to par, where the students are failing?"