By John BurtonRED BANK – Public school segregation. It conjures up stark images of a defiant George Wallace in the early 1960s; frightened young students of color with books under their arms flanked by armed National Guardsmen as they enter uninviting school buildings in the 1950s and ‘60s; and of angry white families shouting as school buses bringing young African American students to schools in white enclaves in 1970s Boston.But school segregation isn’t some relic of the pre-Civil Rights era and the Jim Crow South. And the discussions of the Red Bank Charter School’s expansion proposal have elicited accusations that Red Bank is one of the most segregated public school districts in New Jersey – a state even in the “post-racial” era has a terrible record on this issue.“Here we are in 2016, dealing with the same issues that were dealt with in Brown versus Board of Education,” observed Gilda Rogers, a community activist, educator, writer and borough resident, referencing the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down racially separated schools. “It’s sad; it’s ridiculous.”The Current BattlePublic school officials have continued to argue that the plan to increase the charter school’s enrollment to 400 students – doubling its current size – over a three-year period will exacerbate an already segregated school system and negatively impact the public schools efforts to provide much needed programs. Charter school officials have been stressing, given the school’s standing waiting list, the availability of additional facility space and some state changes for a weighted lottery to improve diversity, make this a good time to expand and address a need.But many have been raising the troubling specter of segregation in the schools and the numbers only reinforce those concerns. The current numbers – which are fluid, but don’t change that substantially – show public primary and middle schools, with a combined enrollment of approximately 1,425 students, made up of 7 percent white, 79 percent Hispanic, with a 44 percent limited English-proficient population and 9 percent African American. Eighty-eight percent of the overall school qualify for free or reduced cost lunch, most qualifying for free lunch; qualification for that program is a traditional measurement of socio-economic standing.By contrast the charter school has a 52 percent white population, 34 percent Hispanic, 12 percent African-American, and an economically disadvantaged population estimated at 40 percent among its current 200-student enrollment.Public school proponents and those voicing opposition to the proposed expansion have been arguing that the charter school plan would exacerbate the existing disparity in school populations, as well as other issues related to the public school budget and its programs and staffing.Kevin King, a charter school parent who was serving as a volunteer spokesman for the school, said last month that the charter school accurately represents the overall community, as required under the state statute signed into law by then Gov. Christie Whitman in 1995.Charter School Principal Meredith Pennotti said recently, “Our school represents the rich place that Red Bank is.”Charter School officials also continue to stress that a recent state change will allow for improving the school’s student diversity. Charter schools can now use what’s called a weighted lottery in student selection. Families that can show they’re lower income, rely on public assistance for housing and food, are given additional weight in the school’s annual random lottery to select students.As for the school’s and community’s makeup, the charter school does relatively closely represent the overall community, according to information available from Rutgers University’s Joseph C. Cornwall Center for Metropolitan Studies, Newark (though the school has a somewhat higher white population than the overall community).Current Observations and BackgroundBut that disparity is of concern to many.The Greater Red Bank branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has come out in opposition to the charter school proposal. On top of that, the West Side Ministerial Alliance, a coalition of African-American clergy, joined the NAACP in opposing the proposal.“It’s a troubling issue any way you look at it, not just in the school system but in the community itself,” said the Rev. Zaniel Young, pastor of the Shrewsbury Avenue A.M.E. Zion Church, and chairs the ministerial.While he is more than willing to celebrate the achievements of both the charter school and public schools, “What I cannot celebrate is hearing that Red Bank is the most segregated school system in New Jersey,” Young said.That charge has been regularly leveled during this debate. But is it true?Paul Tractenberg is a professor emeritus at Rutgers Law School and has been looking at this issue in New Jersey for more than 40 years.New Jersey, his work has indicated, has done a terrible job and has a record that ranks as one of the worst for school integration.As to whether Red Bank can lay dubious claim to being the “most” segregated in the state, “I don’t know what that means,” Tractenberg said, believing “There’s a lot of competition for that title.”Tractenberg had worked with those at U.C.L.A. on a comprehensive study on the issue titled “New Jersey’s Apartheid and Intensely Segregated Urban Schools,” published in October 2013. Based upon the authors’ analysis, Red Bank public schools would qualify “as intensely segregated,” Tractenberg pointed out. According to co-author Gary Orfield, public school districts with less than 5 percent white population amount to literally “apartheid.”This issue dates back for many years in this state, with the “white flight” of families, their large exodus, with any families with the means moving from urban to suburban and exurban areas. At that point many of the state’s city public schools became almost or exclusively minority, as seen in Newark.“Because – not all – white people didn’t want their children to go to school with black kids,” believes Rogers. “It’s still the same.”This situation has been perpetuated by a de facto unofficial policy for many of the most exclusive residential enclaves, with local zoning in these communities ensuring exclusiveness by requiring large lots for single-family homes. The idea behind that, Tractenberg had heard some former state elected officials say, was to make the locations attractive to captains of industry, who would have company offices and facilities located in the areas, attracting jobs and other affluent residents – winding up with mostly, if not exclusively, white school in those communities.The lack of affordable housing in much of the state is one of the root causes, said Adrienne Sanders, first vice president of the NAACP New Jersey State Conference and president of the Asbury Park/Neptune branch of the civil rights organization. “If we’re not going to desegregate neighborhoods in terms of affordable housing,” Sanders maintained, “we’re going to continue to see these results.”Sanders said about half of African-American students attend segregated public schools and roughly 38-40 percent of Hispanic students.The state Department of Education doesn’t compile information directly on this or issue reports directly looking at segregation in the state or comparing the state to others, said department spokesman David Saenz Jr. But Saenz said, “The NJDOE is dedicated to ensuring and delivering a full and effective education to all New Jersey students without regard to race, color or national origin.”“The state is not adequately addressing this problem,” Sanders said.Red Bank Mayor Pasquale Menna moved to Red Bank from his native Italy when he was just a young child, not speaking a word of English, and went through the borough public school system. Growing up, Menna recalled the school population was made up of about 40 percent Caucasian and 40 percent African-American, with the other 20 percent made up of students from other groups. At that time the schools were largely working class and “We had no problem with each other,” Menna recalled.But in more recent years, with the rise of property values, multigenerational African-American families began selling homes and leaving the community. That saw a rise in absentee landlords who began renting to the large influx of Hispanics who relocated.At about that time, the public schools had taken on a persistent reputation as a failing district, scaring off white families who had the ability to relocate or send their children to private schools, Menna said. That reputation is “being driven by old wives’ tales,” the mayor stressed, believing the current schools are as good as many of the others in the area.The issue for Red Bank segregation had come up before, when the Board of Education raised these arguments believing the charter school’s plan to include additional grade levels and increase its enrollment for all grades would compound the situation. The commissioner of education at that time approved the expansion and when the board of education took the issue to court, a state Superior Court of Appeals dismissed the board of education’s argument, upholding the state’s charter renewal and expansion approval.“That’s the final word on it,” for this issue, responded Roger Foss, vice president of the charter school board of trustees.Red Bank Superintendent of Schools Jared Rumage, who’s been with the district for approximately 18 months said he doesn’t have the expertise to discuss the issue with any authority.Separate but not equalThe problem with having this divide is that the education is separate but certainly not equal in different communities in the eyes of many.“It is the pedagogical piece,” observed Julia Sass Rubin, an associate professor at Rutgers’ Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, who has been studying the state’s school funding formula, especially as it relates to charter schools.With this divide comes a socio-economic component, which can translate into higher numbers of special needs students, who require more services – services that cost more money, money these districts don’t have and wind up underserving their populations, Rubin noted.“Our kids continue to struggle,” in these environments, NAACP’s Sanders said.On another level, “In an ideal world we’re preparing students to function effectively in an even more diverse world,” Tractenberg said. But if students don’t have the experience of coming into contact with people who don’t look like them, “I’m not sure they can come to terms with the steep learning curve that comes with confronting diversity in higher education or in the workplace,” he added.“If you don’t attend school with other people who make up the world,” Rogers offered, “that’s a terrible disservice. That’s the danger.”Tractenberg believes a remedy could be the creation of countywide public school districts with students attending schools out of their immediate community, what was called busing about 40 years ago.Solutions“Education needs to be revolutionized,” and not just in New Jersey, Rogers said, needing a complete restructuring to level the playing field for all. However, Roger conceded, that’s not likely to happen immediately, leaving kids currently in the classrooms disadvantaged. “It’s discouraging,” she said.The Rev. Terrence K. Porter, pastor of Pilgrim Baptist Church, Shrewsbury Avenue, said he was calling on educators and elected officials to convene to address the situation that goes beyond the schools. “The thing we need to do as community leaders, I believe whole-heartedly, we need to have a conversation about race with the two groups so there can be a resolution of mutual respect,” he said, referring to both charter and public school officials.Porter is a member of the West Side Ministerial, but remained neutral in the ministerial’s decision to oppose the charter school plans.“That conversation has to start at the top,” the Young said, agreeing with Porter, and holding all parties accountable for addressing the situation.“It’s starts with being honest,” Rogers said, acknowledging that honesty isn’t always easy–or pretty.