California school district agrees to desegregate after inquiry

FILE -- California Attorney General Xavier Becerra in San Francisco on Feb. 26, 2019. Becerra said on Friday, Aug. 9, 2019, that the Sausalito Marin City School District had set up a separate and unequal system to keep low-income children of color out of a white enclave. (Jim Wilson/The New York Times)

A California school district outside San Francisco agreed to desegregate its schools Friday after a two-year state investigation found that the district had “knowingly and intentionally maintained and exacerbated” racial segregation and even established an intentionally segregated school.

Students in the district, Sausalito Marin City, are divided into two starkly different schools, according to the state Justice Department, which conducted the investigation: a thriving, racially and economically integrated charter school in the heavily white enclave of Sausalito, near the Golden Gate Bridge, and an overwhelmingly black, Hispanic and poor traditional public school about 1 mile away, in the more diverse community of Marin City.

The arrangement was no accident, Xavier Becerra, the California attorney general, said Friday, but a deliberate scheme by school district officials to set up a separate and unequal system that would keep low-income children of color out of a white enclave.

As part of the new agreement, the district agreed to desegregate by the 2020-21 school year, and provide scholarships and counseling to students who had been hurt by the segregation.

“Depriving a child of a fair chance to learn is wicked; it’s warped; it’s morally bankrupt, and it’s corrupt,” Becerra said. “Your skin color or ZIP code should not determine winners and losers.”

State attorneys general typically defend school systems against desegregation claims, not pursue them. In the decades after the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, the vast majority of desegregation agreements resulted from federal, not state, action — but in recent years, federal courts have done little to integrate schools.

In the Sausalito case, the state said the district had violated the equal protection clause of the California Constitution. The action is part of a wave of new educational equity court actions from the left that relies on state law.

The settlement is “very significant” nationally and historically, said Richard Kahlenberg, director of K-12 equity at the Century Foundation. “This is an important, relatively new avenue for the vindication of rights for students of color and low-income students.”

The settlement comes amid a growing national debate over school segregation — one that has animated the Democratic presidential primary.

Sixty-five years after Brown v. Board of Education, California and several other liberal states — New York, Maryland and Illinois — have the most deeply segregated schools in the nation.

Two Democratic presidential candidates have publicly clashed over school segregation, with Sen. Kamala Harris of California criticizing former Vice President Joe Biden for opposing busing to integrate schools. Biden has responded that Harris, as California’s attorney general, did not pursue school segregation cases against Los Angeles or San Francisco, big cities with many segregated and struggling schools.

But the inquiry into the tiny Sausalito district began during Harris’ tenure as attorney general, noted Lily Adams, a campaign spokeswoman.

Nestled in the scenic hills across the bay from San Francisco, Sausalito is known for its charming houseboats, boutiques and restaurants, which cater to a well-heeled crowd of tourists and locals.

The charter school, Willow Creek Academy, was founded about two decades ago by parents in Sausalito who said they were frustrated by poor test scores in the district. Many parents were sending their children to private school or seeking transfers to other public school districts.

In 2013, against the wishes of many people in both Sausalito and Marin City, according to court papers, the district decided to move its elementary school from Sausalito to the campus of its middle school in Marin City. The resulting campus became Bayside-Martin Luther King Jr. Academy. Like Willow Creek, it served kindergarten through eighth grade.

At a district meeting in 2012, a district trustee, who is not named in court papers, “admitted that the plan to create separate programs for Sausalito and Marin City was motivated by a desire to create separate programs for separate communities,” according to the complaint. “This trustee also expressed it would improve community relations if students in Marin City were not ‘shipped over’ to Sausalito.”

Willow Creek, with about 400 students, prided itself on its diversity. In the 2018-19 school year, it was 41 percent white, 11 percent African American, 25 percent Latino and 10 percent Asian, according to its website. In contrast, Bayside-Martin Luther King Jr. Academy, with about 119 students, was 7 percent white, 3 percent Asian, 49 percent African American and 30 percent Latino, according to state statistics.

In court papers, the attorney general said that the district had systematically starved the school it ran of resources.

It reneged on a promise to create a gifted program and cut music, art, physical education and counseling services, according to court papers. By 2015, the Bayside-MLK principal, assistant principal and about half of the teaching staff had left, the court papers say.

The district-run school did not have a qualified math teacher, while the charter school did. The district school had only a part-time counselor, while the charter school had a full-time one.

And the district was harsher in disciplining black and Hispanic students compared with white students than any other public school district in the state, the attorney general said.

“The district aggravated relations between a wealthy, majority-white city and a relatively poor, majority-minority unincorporated community,” the state said.

Kurt Weinsheimer, the president of the charter school board, said on Friday that the charter school had become a scapegoat for the segregation in the district. The district schools had been segregated for years, he said, and was losing students; the charter school brought them back. A slight majority of its students come from the less affluent part of the district, he said.

“That’s the opposite of separation,” Weinsheimer said.

District mismanagement, not racial antagonism, had led to the segregation problem, he added.