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Judge Orders Reopening of Phoenix Union School

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A federal judge has ruled that a school board's decision to close an inner-city high school in Phoenix, Ariz., and sell the campus would "dismember the inner city of Phoenix" by effectively removing all secondary-education opportunities easily accessible to members of minority groups.

On Aug. 30, U.S. District Court Judge Valdemar A. Cordova issued an injunction to stop Phoenix Union High School District #210 from selling the Phoenix Union High School property. He ordered that the school be reopened in January.

The judge said the order would remain in effect pending future legal proceedings or until the district has developed an alternative school-closing plan which protects the constitutional rights of the plaintiffs.

A group of 20 Phoenix Union parents had filed suit against the district in April to keep the school open.

Rulings 'Fairly Common'

Such rulings are "fairly common when there is a question of disparate impact on members of one race," noted Gwendolyn Gregory, deputy legal counsel for the National School Boards Association, although she did not have exact figures.

The judge also ordered the plaintiffs and defendants to file additional arguments for the court to consider in its final decision.

The Phoenix Union district consists only of high schools, three of which have been closed in the past year. The district has lost nearly 10,000 students since 1971, due mostly to a declining birthrate among the aging population within the district and a general movement away from the inner city into the suburbs.

Currently, the district operates eight comprehensive high schools and five alternative schools and expects a 1982-83 enrollment of 19,900.

The district has closed two other downtown schools besides Phoenix Union: North and East.

Last June, parents from East High School failed in their effort to get an injunction from a federal court to halt the closing of their school.

As yet, no parents from North High School have brought suits.

All of these schools have suffered dwindling enrollments over the past several years. And in the same period, the proportion of minority students at each school has grown.

For example, according to Gerald R. LeRoy, administrative assistant to the superintendent in the district, Phoenix Union's enrollment dropped from nearly 5,000 in the early 1960's to 900 at the end of last year, at which time more than 90 percent of its students were black or Hispanic.

The main reason for closing these particular schools, he said, was not racial, but financial. "It is not cost-effective to keep small schools open on large campuses."

But by closing these schools, argued Albert Flores, attorney for the plaintiffs, the board "effectively closed all secondary schools within a 30-square-mile area in downtown Phoenix."

The plaintiffs have charged that the district used a "package of criteria"--in deciding which schools to close--that was inherently biased toward minority-dominated schools, Mr. Flores said.

For example, he said, the district decided that schools with less-experienced teachers and fewer gifted students should be closed first.

"Minority teachers are generally assigned to minority schools," he said. "And minority teachers have less experience, being a newer phenomenon."

The plaintiffs also claimed that other schools were "harming" incoming minority students by inadequately preparing for them.

Little Experience

"The majority of the teachers within the receiving schools had little or no minority-teaching experience," Mr. Flores said.

The district has an open-enrollment policy, so students from the closed schools have dispersed to other schools throughout the district.

A majority of the students from Phoenix Union chose this fall to attend Central High School, about three miles north of Phoenix Union.

Central was formerly 82-percent white. School officials will not have final enrollment counts until later in the fall, but Mr. LeRoy expects a ratio of approximately 60 percent white and 40 percent black and Hispanic students at the school.

A spokesman for Central said that about 400 students from Phoenix Union and 500 from East came to the school this fall.

Other than forcing the school to deal with an enrollment surge, she said, the new students have posed no problems.

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