ED To Withhold Funds From Mississippi District
The U.S. Education Department (ed), employing a rarely used civil-rights enforcement tool, has announced that next month it will cut off federal funds to a Mississippi school district found guilty of race discrimination.
L. Jane Glickman, a spokesman for the department's office for civil rights, said that the Perry County (Miss.) School District will stop receiving federal assistance beginning April 5. Federal funds accounted for one-quarter of the district's $2.5-million budget last year, according to the Mississippi Department of Education.
The financial sanctions were approved in March of last year when a federal administrative-law judge ruled that the school district's firing of a high-school basketball coach and an athletic director violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employers in federally assisted programs from forcing employees to carry out racially discriminatory policies.
Education Secretary Terrel H. Bell announced the impending funds cutoff in letters to the House and Senate education committees dated March 5, Ms. Glickman said.
Federal officials have not cut off a local school district's federal funds in response to a finding of race discrimination since 1972. That year, the former U.S. Office of Education barred the Ferndale (Mich.) School District from receiving federal funds after ruling that the district had not adequately desegregated its schools.
Similar federal funding cutoffs have been successfully avoided since then because the government has reached negotiated settlements with the school districts in question, according to Ms. Glickman. "But the Perry County school officials simply refused to negotiate with us," she added.
She also said that the department had delayed its decision to cut the school district's funds for a year in order to pursue a less drastic remedy. Title I aid to disadvantaged children, which would have reached approximately one-third of the district's 1,500 students, accounts for approximately $200,000 of the funds scheduled for impoundment.
According to court records, in 1977 Perry County school officials began pressuring the high-school basketball coach and the athletic director to use white team members more often, despite the fact that the team had met with considerable success for several years with an almost exclusively black starting lineup.
The coach and the athletic director responded to the pressure by adopting a policy of benching black players and sending in white substitutes when the team was well ahead of its opponents.
School-board members, dissatisfied with the new arrangement, demoted the high-school coach in 1978 and reassigned him to the district's junior-high team. The board also ordered the athletic director to begin coaching the high-school team.
The two school employees were fired by the board after refusing to accept their new assignments. Their dismissals on charges of neglect of duty and insubordination were subsequently upheld in hearings before the Perry County Chancery Court and the Mississippi State Supreme Court.
According to Maniel Cochran, superintendent of the school district, Perry County officials "are facing a real dilemma now."
"If we refuse to reinstate the coaches, we lose our federal funds. But if we rehire them, we're opening up ourselves to a lawsuit from someone in the community based on the State Supreme Court's ruling," Mr. Cochran explained.
"We've done everything we can to reach some sort of agreement with these coaches," he continued. "The cuts are really going to hurt us. But the financial settlement they want to reach is so high that if we agreed to it we would have to close down the schools for a year."
An attorney representing the two former school employees said, however, that his clients have never demanded monetary damages of the school district other than back pay plus interest.
"All that these men are asking for is that their good names be cleared once and for all," explained Jack Parsons, an attorney from Wiggins, Miss.
"The school board's representatives have been saying all along that my clients have been demanding outrageous sums of money," Mr. Parsons continued. "I'd like to see any documentation that they have where we have said anything of that sort."
According to Mr. Parsons, adverse publicity stemming from the firings has prevented one of his clients from finding another teaching position. The other, he said, found a teaching position only this school year.
"All we want to do is to sit down and sort this matter out," he said. "These gentlemen just want to continue pursuing their occupations."
Mr. Cochran, the Perry County superintendent, said that rehiring the former school employees would dilute the authority of county school officials, and would give the appearance in the community that the board had lost control over the schools.
"These people were our employees, and they should have followed our orders," he said. "In school administration, when you let someone refuse to follow your directions, you allow them to take on the role of administrator," he said.
In his finding against the school district, however, Administrative Law Judge Walter J. Alprin responded that "as unfortunate as this may be, the time for face-saving and economic compromise is long past."