Members of the Marshall County School Board and representatives of the NAACP have agreed that it's time to take action against inequalities in county schools.
Of the 427 teachers in the county system, just 17 are African-American, and two are Hispanic. That's less than five percent, while the number of minority students in the county is nearly 14 percent.
"This is unacceptable," Gary Davis, president of the Lewisburg Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said during a work session with the school board on Thursday when there was a mostly African-American audience.
"We expect a change that we can believe in," Davis said, offering advice that might protect the school budget.
"This County is funded by state, federal and local dollars and you must comply with all federal laws or funding can and will be taken away," said Davis, reading from a prepared statement. "We will not face these injustices any longer."
The problem is not just that minorities are not being hired: very few have been applying for the open positions, according to a sheet of statistics from the human resources department obtained by Rochelle Alexander of the NAACP.
Some of the applicants said they were treated discourteously and had obstacles such as having to fill out a second application. Davis presented letters from Sandra Angus and Sandra Mayes to Human Resources Director Mitchell Byrd, detailing their less-than-happy experiences with the HR department. Davis said many more had complained to him, but wouldn't give their names for fear of retaliation.
"The process you used during this 2009-2010 school year to recruit new African-American administrators, teachers and support staff failed tremendously," Davis said.
"There were 33 positions, and no African-Americans hired," he said. "I know at least 30 applied. We demand some type of equal numbers. Why is this allowed to continue?"
"Our director is to one that needs to answer those questions," school board chairwoman Ann Tears said. "It's good for the board to hear this."
Schools Director Stan Curtis was unable to attend due to illness, and three of the board members were absent.
"How will this be passed to Curtis?" asked board member Craig Michael. "We need to schedule another meeting when there's not a Titans game."
Byrd was invited to sit at the conference table. He said he was unaware that anyone in his department was treating applicants badly.
"If that's the case it will be taken care of," he promised.
Byrd explained the way jobs are posted, the application procedure, and how long applications are kept on file.
The record is maintained for one year.
"Do you not go back through applications?" board member Dee Dee Owens asked.
"No," answered Byrd. "Not if they don't call" and ask to be considered for a specific job that has been posted.
"We need to get more qualified applicants for teaching positions," he added.
Don Johnson attended the meeting and asked, "Where are you trying to recruit from? What can we do to make it work?"
Tears replied, "That's a director question. He will have to provide the leadership."
School board member Mike Keny asked about board policy on the issue.
"Is there a way we can start locally to recruit our own?" Keny asked. "Let's start putting some of our own in position."
The packed audience responded with applause.
"That makes a lot of sense," Johnson said.
"I believe most people want everyone treated fairly and equitably," Michael said. "Procedures and policies should be such that this happens on a daily basis," he continued. "Sensitivity training is an important issue - an on-going process - that the board should address. We have to look at doing the recruiting differently, and the application process needs review and refinement. We don't need to change Mr. (Roy) Dukes!"
This was greeted with more applause.
"We will serve the school board and the citizens of Marshall County as best we can," Byrd promised.
"Yes," Tears said, "We do have policies and procedures; I'm not sure they're being enforced."
Jerry Freeman, a former candidate for mayor in Lewisburg, then told the board about the "minority enterprise policy" that he said had been agreed during the previous director's time. He said it specified hiring three percent minorities every year, as well as spending 20 percent of the budget at businesses owned by women or minorities.
"It appears the board has thrown this policy out the window," Freeman said. "Twenty years ago we were at this point. How long are we going to have to put up with this?"
"I've never heard it mentioned," Michael said of the minority enterprise policy. "I promise I will familiarize myself with it."
Alexander sought another meeting between the board and the NAACP.
"It's hard to set without the director," Tears replied.
A member of the audience asked if all the board members knew about last week's meeting and Michael replied they did.
"The date was good for all when we scheduled the meeting," Tears said.
"The percentage of board members here is pretty consistent with how it is for most work sessions," said Michael.
Board members not present were Kristen Gold, Mark Wilkerson, and Todd Tietgens.
"Then you've got a problem," an audience member murmured.
"We've heard a lot of good points," Keny said. "It's been a night to listen and understand. Now we need to come up with a plan that is fair and agreeable. Hiring is not part of the board's duties, but we can look at policies and procedures."
The chairwoman agreed.
"I know the board is going to take it seriously," Tears said. "It's time for action. Everybody should be treated with respect and have an opportunity to climb the ladder. The time for talk is over. I urge the board to get with Curtis and take a look at this."
"We've got to go forward and move beyond talking," Davis agreed. "We (at the NAACP) are not going away."
"The key is to get a plan on paper and make it happen," Michael concluded.
However, Tears said just before the meeting adjourned, "The director has to enforce and follow through."