Dr. Gary Orfield

(Editor’s note: This post was updated at 9:20 p.m. on January 21.)

Jefferson County Board of Education officials are bringing in a civil rights researcher and educator who helped craft a more user-friendly desegregation plan for Louisville almost two decades ago.

Dr. Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, is scheduled to be in Louisville Thursday, Jan. 27 and Friday, Jan. 28.

Orfield is scheduled to address a special school board meeting scheduled for 4 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 27 at the Van Hoose Education Center, 3332 Newburg Rd.

He’s also scheduled to meet one-on-one with school board members, said Debbie Wesslund, District Three board member.

Board members are hoping Orfield will develop a plan that addresses both diversity and achievement, Wesslund said: “He’s worked with other districts that have achieved both.”

Louisville’s desegregation plan was struck down in 2007 by the activist Roberts Court, which ruled that school system officials can’t consider race when making school assignments.

Now, JCPS officials use household income and a complex busing plan to maintain diversity.

Orfield declined to be interviewed for this post, stating in an e-mail response that he and his staff are working to finish the analysis of the surveys in order to present the findings next week:

As we get work done, it will be made public and we will be very happy to answer questions. Until then I don’t want to do anything that distracts from the facts and what I think the implications are.  We have a lot of work to do.

Wesslund and others tell Insider Louisville board of education members started working with Orfield last October, and Orfield has just begun researching the district.

“He won’t be coming to say, ‘Here’s my recommendation,’ ” Wesslund said.

But Orfield has created a survey he’ll use to address the district’s student assignment plan and its increasingly burdensome and unpopular busing scheme, insiders tell Insider Louisville.

Board members contacted by Insider Louisville stated they haven’t seen the survey and don’t know the focus of its questions.

“We won’t see it till next week,” said Carol Haddad, District Six representative. “None of us has seen it.”

Board members say they’re confident Orfield’s advice will be objective because he doesn’t stand to benefit from any final decision.

Haddad said Orfield has testified repeatedly for the system as an expert witness, “and he’s never charged us a dime. It’s always been pro bono.”

“He’s not taking any money,” Wesslund said. “He never has.”

The board covers Orfield’s staff costs and travel, about $10,000 to $11,000, she said.

Haddad and Wesslund said Orfield has a long association with the district, having testified for the board and JCPS in the process that led up to the 2007 Supreme Court ruling.

Since then, school officials under the leadership of outgoing superintendent Dr. Sheldon Berman have tried to keep Louisville from joining other school systems that saw the ruling as permission to return to largely segregated neighborhood schools.

In a story about Louisville’s schools last October, Orfield told USA Today reporter Joan Biskupic, “I think that minority schools are going to be even more isolated. For very large communities, there is going to be no integration experience available … segregation perpetuates itself.”

Sources tell Insider Louisville that in 1992, Orfield helped JCPS officials craft Project Renaissance, a student assignment plan for the system’s elementary schools. Project Renaissance was designed to keep schools desegregated while still giving parents some flexibility about where they sent their children.

One insider with direct knowledge of the situation told Insider Louisville  the recommendations of a civil rights activist may lead to a backlash from those who see the opportunity to go back to neighborhood schools.

“Here’s the interesting part – I’m being told he’s recommending tweaking the plan, not making (major) changes,” said the source, who asked not to be named because of his relationship with the board.

“But what if people are really unhappy with the findings? Can you solve that (problem) by merely tweaking it? I can’t believe people like what we’re doing. That’s not what we’re hearing,” he said.

“If (Orfield) says, ‘This is great!’ the average person is going to say, ‘Hey, it’s not great.’

“That’s the risk.”

About Dr. Gary Orfield: Orfield is co-director of the Civil Rights Project. Orfield is involved in formulating and implementing of social policy. His fields of research are the study of civil rights, education policy, urban policy, and minority opportunity. He was co-founder and director of the Harvard Civil Rights Project and is now co-director of the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at UCLA.