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For Ed Cloutman Jr., the Dallas plaintiffs lawyer who filed the desegregation case that led to three decades of federal court supervision of the Dallas Independent School District, the past week brought mixed emotions: relief that it’s over and regret that the court didn’t order supervision of DISD for a few more years. On June 5, U.S. District Judge Barefoot Sanders issued a memorandum opinion and order that effectively ended the litigation that has dominated Cloutman’s and DISD defense lawyers’ professional lives for years. “I’m going to have the biggest bonfire in history,” says Cloutman, referring to 30 years of paperwork on the case. He filed Eddie Mitchell Tasby, et al. v. Dr. Mike Moses, General Superintendent, Dallas Independent School District, et al. in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas on Oct. 6, 1970. Cloutman’s named client was Sam Tasby, the now 85-year-old father of Eddie Mitchell Tasby and his brother, Phillip Wayne. At the time their father filed the class-action suit alleging discrimination against minority students who attended DISD public schools, the Tasby boys — both of whom are now deceased — had to ride a bus past white schools to get to their all-black school. In 1970, DISD’s compliance with the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in Brown v. Board of Education — which prohibited separate-but-equal approaches to teaching children – had been “almost non-existent and grudging at best,” Sanders wrote in the June 5 opinion and order. After an extensive evidentiary hearing in 1981, Sanders issued an opinion that rejected cross-town busing as a solution to Dallas’ de facto segregated schools. The court also required an extensive, court-monitored program to close the achievement gap between minority and white students. Eventually, Sanders appointed a full-time external auditor to supervise DISD to make sure it complied with the orders. During two weeks of hearings held in March and April this year regarding DISD’s Jan. 9 motion to dismiss the case, Cloutman argued that Sanders and the court-appointed external auditor, Sandra Malone, should continue to supervise DISD for a few more years because the district’s history of successfully closing the achievement gap for its student body of 164,000 pupils — roughly 93 percent of whom are minorities — was a short one, less than five years. But on June 5, Sanders ended Malone’s oversight. The litigation has been a career-maker for Cloutman in terms of reputation and money. A Dallas solo, Cloutman has received attorney’s fees from the district since the mid-1970s when Congress allowed for such payments to civil rights lawyers nationwide pursuing discrimination claims. Cloutman — who these days typically represents unions and employees — welcomes the end of the Tasby era. Asked if he would entertain taking on a case of Tasby’s magnitude again, Cloutman doesn’t hesitate to answer: “You couldn’t give me one if you paid me a lot of money.” Lawyers defending DISD are similarly relieved about the conclusion of the case, particularly since they argued this spring to Sanders as well as to Dallas community groups that the time had come to halt federal court monitoring of the district. “I was supposed to retire four years ago,” says Robert Thomas, a partner in Dallas’ Strasburger & Price who has represented DISD in Tasby for 23 years. In 1999, when Thomas reached Strasburger’s mandatory retirement age, 68, Thomas told Sanders that his partnership agreement required that he, like previous DISD defense counsel, pass the case to another lawyer. But Sanders, who took senior status himself in 1996, refused to let him turn over the case to someone else, Thomas says. Sanders was in no mood to break in a new lawyer in Tasby, Thomas recalls. A federal court could easily overrule Strasburger’s partnership agreement, Thomas recalls Sanders telling him. Sanders did not return a phone call seeking comment before presstime on June 12. None of his partners wanted to take Tasby on, Thomas says and laughs, so he stayed on the case. Thomas estimates that, over the past decade, the firm has earned more than $250,000 a year in fees from DISD for representing the district in Tasby. Marcos Ronquillo, a partner in Dallas’ Godwin Gruber and a relative newcomer to the team representing DISD in the litigation, took the lead at the spring 2003 hearings on DISD’s motion to dismiss. Those proceedings ultimately persuaded Sanders to dismiss the case, thereby ending the decades of court-supervision of DISD. DISD administrators tapped Ronquillo as co-counsel to Thomas in 1997. When Ronquillo disbanded his own firm, the Marcos Ronquillo Law Firm, two years ago to join Godwin Gruber, he brought Tasby with him. He says he established a game plan long before the hearings this spring to ensure that the judge would dismiss the case: Ronquillo asked the plaintiffs and Malone to agree to meet once a month starting in June 2002 and eventually to agree to stipulate to the areas where they believed the district still was failing to meet court-ordered improvements. Ultimately, Ronquillo says, the plaintiffs narrowed their concerns to magnet schools, bilingual education, early childhood centers and learning centers. Minority students previously had been bused to schools outside their neighborhoods to attend schools that were predominately white. Over the years, the population of the student body at the schools that minorities were bused to changed, and the minorities were in the majority. However, DISD continued to bus minority students outside of their neighborhoods to go to those schools. In the mid-1980s, Sanders ordered DISD to create learning centers, which are, in essence, schools in those minority students’ neighborhoods. The learning centers’ curriculum is geared toward eliminating the gap in the quality of education between whites and minorities. Sanders also ordered the creation of magnet schools, bilingual education and early childhood centers for pre-kindergarten-age children. For the hearings this spring, Ronquillo brought in national and local educational experts to testify to the district’s progress on those specific areas. Ronquillo and Thomas agree that the most important player in getting to the point where Sanders would agree to dismiss the case was one man: Moses, who took over as the DISD superintendent in January 2001. “He was like Moses in the Bible,” Thomas says. “We finally had a leader.” Thomas recalls visiting Moses — a former Texas Commissioner of Education — during his first week as DISD’s superintendent. Moses told Thomas that second to passing a bond program, his priority was closing the desegregation litigation, Thomas says. Thomas says he told Moses that to meet that objective they needed to improve early childhood centers, the magnet schools and the learning centers — all key building blocks to complying with the court-ordered plans. Sanders specifically referred to Moses’ leadership in his June 5, 40-page opinion, concluding that the educational opportunities available to minorities are better than they were when Tasby filed his suit. Now, Dallas has “a good urban school district — better than generally recognized,” Sanders wrote. For the lawyers on both sides, years of struggle are finally over. “I can’t respect any lawyer more than Ed Cloutman,” Thomas says. “He undertook this and never let it go. We made enough mistakes along the way for him to get plenty of shots at us.” Even Sanders takes note of the lawyers dedication in Tasby, congratulating the attorneys on both sides at the end of his opinion and order. “During this litigation, the court and the parties have been fortunate to have the service of experienced and capable lawyers,” Sanders wrote, specifically naming Thomas, Cloutman and Ronquillo. Says Cloutman, “Judges don’t do that often enough.”

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