Trying to Figure the Future of Patterson Elementary

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Black and white parents alike are complaining about a 1988 federal court desegregation order that prompted school officials to end a school choice option for Patterson Elementary School in Panama City.

The once nearly all-black school had become racially balanced under the court order until the state passed a school choice law that began letting white students leave. By 2003, the school was back to 85 percent black.

Bay County School Superintendent James McCalister ordered an end to choice at Patterson before the 2003-04 school year as he tried to bring it back into compliance with the court order. It is closer now, but some parents of both races are unhappy with the results.

"African-American children who live one, two and three blocks away cannot attend that school," B.J. Richardson told the Bay School Board on Wednesday. "This is madness."

The board took no immediate action, hoping to hear first from more plaintiffs in the desegregation lawsuit.

John Bruce, the lead plaintiff, told the board it may be time to end the dispute.

"I don't particularly care what you do with Patterson," Bruce said. "We've fought this battle for so long that I'm not sure we shouldn't be done with it."

Bruce said the board, not the plaintiffs, caused Patterson's problems. They sought only to prevent the board from closing Patterson and two other predominantly black schools, he said.

"Same board, different faces," Bruce said.

Instead of closing Patterson, the board turned it into a technology and science magnet school. It established a partnership with NASA and received millions of dollars in grants.

McCalister said he was afraid the school would lose those grants if found to be out of compliance with the desegregation order.

Tina Bass, a white parent, moved in with her sister so her daughters, Alyssa, 7, and Alexis, 5, would be in another school's district after their choice applications was rejected.

"I know what part of town it's in," Bass said. "I heard lots of horror stories about it."

The state graded Patterson as a "B" school this year but it got a "D" last year. Bass wants her daughters to attend "A" rated Tommy Smith Elementary.