Skip to comments.Schools at odds in racial division - Hearne ISD sues nearby Mumford for "white flight"
Posted on 08/03/2003 12:44:26 AM PDT by Cincinatus' Wife
MUMFORD -- A little more than a decade ago, the tiny school district in this community of cotton fields and drying feed corn was a candidate for extinction: just 80 students, kindergarten through eighth grade, attending class in a 1925 schoolhouse.
Today, it is the envy of Robertson County: three new campuses stocked with computer labs for all students, televisions and VCRs in every classroom, and consistently good scores on state standardized tests.
The school district has made the most of school transfer laws. Eighty percent of its student body -- which is now at 444 and includes a high school -- came from neighboring districts.
The vast majority transferred from the nearby Hearne Independent School District and officials there believe something sinister is luring families from Hearne.
In a recently filed federal lawsuit, Hearne officials complain that white families are fleeing the predominately black Hearne school district, depriving Hearne of much-needed state aid and turning back the clock to a time in Texas when the federal courts had to order public schools to integrate.
"This kind of white flight is just devastating to a school district like Hearne," said attorney Donald Henslee.
The lawsuit, filed July 25 in U.S. District Court in Tyler, accuses Mumford ISD of violating the federal desegregation order that has governed Texas schools since 1971.
The dispute threatens to devastate rural school districts and become another fissure in a community that has struggled with race relations. It has the potential to change the way Texas public school enrollments are managed.
For an agricultural county of just 16,000 people, Robertson has had more than its share of public scandals. Many have involved allegations of racism.
Most recently, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit against the county district attorney and a local drug task force, accusing them of unjustly targeting blacks in a recent drug sting. The lawsuit is pending.
"There's a great deal of racial tension in the community of Hearne," said resident Jerry Henry, who is white.
The current dispute between the Mumford and Hearne school districts could heighten that tension.
Although two-thirds of Robertson County is white, Hearne, its largest community, and the Hearne Independent School District are predominately black.
Although students of all races and ethnicities have transferred from Hearne to Mumford, it is the flight of the white students that has raised the most ire.
Hearne school board members have complained that Mumford is stealing its most academically talented students, hurting Hearne's performance on state tests. More importantly, the district loses approximately $5,500 in state aid for every student that leaves, more if the student can be categorized as one deserving additional state aid such as special education.
In 10 years, Hearne has lost hundreds of students to Mumford, many of them white. In 1993, blacks made up 47 percent of the Hearne student body, whites 28 percent and Hispanics 26 percent. In 2002, just 12 percent of the students in Hearne schools were white, 58 percent were black and 30 percent were Hispanic.
During the same period, the racial makeup of the Mumford school district went from majority Hispanic to majority white.
Hearne's attorney said this is not by accident. Henslee accuses Mumford of actively soliciting transfers.
What's more, Henslee said, the practice violates the federal desegregation order that governs Texas. While the order allows students to transfer from one school district to another as long as the receiving school district can accommodate them, it expressly prohibits transfers that will alter the racial makeup of either school district by more than 1 percent.
Even Mumford's staunchest supporters agree the numbers can appear troubling.
"It does fit the symptoms (of white flight), I guess," said Henry, who sent two of his three children to Mumford schools while a member of the Hearne school board.
But supporters insist there is more to the story than just counts of race and ethnicity
"From the academic part of it, Mumford does a whole lot better than Hearne does," said Dennis Randle, a black man from Hearne who sends two children to Mumford schools and one to Hearne High School.
The accusations of racism sting, said Mumford Superintendent Pete Bienski Jr.
Mumford's growth has never been about race or money, but about educating children, he said. To prove it, Bienski has his own statistics.
Of the 342 students who transferred to Mumford last year, 268 came from Hearne. Of the Hearne transfers, 156 were black or Hispanic.
"This is not a white school. We take all kids," Bienski said. "People come to Mumford because they know they are getting a better education. We don't recruit kids. Parents do our recruiting for us by word of mouth."
Bienski doesn't deny that Mumford relies on the state aid it receives for the transfers, but he insists that has not been the secret to the school district's recent success. Mumford has been successful, Bienski says, because it does more with less.
There is some evidence of that.
Bienski serves not only as the school district superintendent, but also as the principal of all three campuses. When the district began its aggressive building campaign in 1997, Bienski served as the general contractor, saving the district millions of dollars. The district owns all three campuses outright.
The school district stocked its computer labs by taking advantage of grant programs. When it launched its high school a few years ago, it focused on academics and avoided costly athletic programs such as football.
There are many school districts that shun transfer students because the $5,500 state aid payment cannot cover the cost of an education, Bienski points out. And it is Hearne, not Mumford, that receives the property taxes paid by the transfer families.
"All parents -- regardless of race, whether it is Hispanic, black or white -- they want their kids to have the very best education," Bienski said. "The only thing we're guilty of in Mumford is educating children."
The Hearne school district has requested specific remedies in its lawsuit.
It wants the federal court to order Hearne students back to Hearne schools and to order Mumford to stop accepting transfers. It also asks the court to consolidate the Mumford school district with Hearne.
If Hearne is successful, the ruling would be devastating, not just to Mumford, but to many rural school districts in Texas, Bienski said. Although few go as far as Mumford, 262 Texas school districts accept transfer students.
Many are small and rural and would be bankrupt without them, Bienski said.
"If we were not able to take any transfers, then Mumford would not be able to exist, but Mumford would not be the only school district that would not be able to exist. There would be a lot of schools affected by that," he said.
A Mumford victory also would carry statewide ramifications.
Mumford's position is that the 33-year-old federal desegregation order is outdated and should be modified or removed. Bienski points out the order conflicts with the federal law known as No Child Left Behind, passed by Congress two years ago.
In addition to implementing nationwide a system of standardized tests similar to what already exists in Texas, the law also gives parents the right to transfer their children from a low-performing school district to a better neighboring district.
"This lawsuit will be a landmark case," Bienski predicted.