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U.S. Court Rules Against Layoffs Based on Race

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A federal appeals court, in a ruling that could have national implications, has overturned a lower court's order requiring the Kalamazoo, Mich., school board to lay off senior white teachers in order to protect the jobs of black teachers.

U.S. District Judge Noel P. Fox "erred in imposing a quota system for the hiring and composition of the teaching staff of the Kalamazoo school system," said the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in its May 6 ruling in the case, Oliver v. Kalamazoo Board of Education.

Judge Fox's "[n]ullification of the seniority and tenure rights of white teachers was also in error," the appeals court said.

The circuit court's ruling in the Oliver case appears to run counter to another circuit court's decision in a similar lawsuit involving the Boston public schools--a case that the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review last year. (See Education Week, Oct. 13, 1982.)

In the Boston case, Morgan v. Kerrigan, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in early 1982 upheld U.S. District Judge W. Arthur Garrity's 1981 order supporting the Boston School Committee's decision to base teacher layoffs and recalls on race rather than seniority.

The layoffs in both the Boston and Kalamazoo cases were precipitated by severe financial problems. In both cases, the district judges had ordered the school districts to maintain a teaching force that was 20-percent black as part of an overall school-desegregation plan.

Last October, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a similar case involving the layoffs of senior white police officers and firefighters in Boston. But when oral arguments in that case, Boston Firefighters Union v. Boston naacp, were heard several weeks ago, the Justices strongly hinted that they might declare the case moot because the laid-off employees are back on the job--and thereby avoid ruling on the constitutionality of race-conscious layoff orders. (See Education Week, April 27, 1983.)

According to a spokesman for the American Federation of Teachers (aft), which represents the teachers in Boston, the Sixth Circuit Court's opinion in the Kalamazoo lawsuit "may provide the Supreme Court with an avenue by which to reconsider its decision not to hear the Boston teachers' case."

"We hail the decision, believe it is just, and take the National Education Association (nea) to task for not supporting its local in this matter," said Phyllis Franck of the aft

(Judge Fox's order requiring the layoff of tenured white teachers in the Kalamazoo case was challenged in court by the Kalamazoo Education Association, an affiliate of the nea The parent organization did not intervene in that case. It did, however, take a position contrary to the Kalamazoo local's by filing a friend-of-the-court brief supporting race-conscious layoffs in the Boston Firefighters case. The aft has opposed race-conscious furloughs in the Boston firefighters, Boston teachers, and Kalamazoo teachers cases.)

(Robert H. Chanin, general counsel to the nea, said last week that he could not comment on the Kalamazoo case because he had not yet received a copy of the Sixth Circuit Court's opinion.)

The Kalamazoo case dates from May 1971, when the city school board adopted a citizens committee's recommendation that the district's administrative, counseling, and teaching staffs be 20-percent black, as part of an overall school-desegregation proposal.

A change in the composition of the school board between May and July of that year led to the shelving of the student-desegregation part of the proposal. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (naacp) filed suit against the new school board, and in August 1971, Judge Fox issued a preliminary injunction placing the student-integration portion of the plan into effect.

Shortly thereafter, the school board announced that, because of financial difficulties, it would have to lay off 103 teachers, reducing the percentage of blacks in the teaching force from 8 percent to 4 percent. Judge Fox then modified his previous injunction to bar any layoffs, explaining that the dismissal of black teachers would have a detrimental effect on the integration of students.

In 1973, Judge Fox handed down a permanent injunction against the school board with respect to the student portion of the desegregation plan. During that phase of the case, the naacp asked Judge Fox to order the hiring of additional black teachers. The judge did not grant that request, noting only that the school board was in the process of adopting the 20-percent black quota recommended by the citizens committee.

Seven years later, the Kalamazoo school system experienced another financial setback, prompting the school board to announce the layoff of 128 teachers, 35 of whom were black. The percentage of blacks in the teaching force would have dropped from 11 percent to 8.9 percent if the layoffs had been based strictly on seniority.

At that point, the city school board asked Judge Fox to set aside the part of its collective-bargaining agreement with the local nea affiliate that required layoffs to be based on seniority. It requested further that the layoffs be made in such a way as to preserve the teaching force's existing racial balance, meaning that some tenured white teachers and some junior black teachers would be furloughed.

The naacp, meanwhile, requested that all layoffs be made according to race. The state and local nea affiliates asked that they be made according to seniority.

In September 1980, Judge Fox issued a ruling that conformed to none of the parties' positions. Maintaining that his previous orders required a 20-percent black teaching force, he:

Ordered the immediate recall of all tenured black teachers;

Required that all other recalls be made on the basis of seniority, except that at least 20 percent of such recalls be untenured black teachers;

Established a new quota system requiring the district to hire one black teacher for every five new white teachers that it hired.

In overturning Judge Fox's order, the Sixth Circuit Court said that the record in the case "does not demonstrate that nullification of the seniority and tenure rights of white teachers is necessary to vindicate the students' constitutional rights" to be taught in a desegregated setting.

"Indeed, the record is silent as to the actual effect of the layoffs on the students," the court continued. "The district court refers to a 'critical mass' of black role models necessary for black students, but even assuming that that theory should be adopted, the record simply does not reveal the actual 'critical mass' percentage for the Kalamazoo school system."

The court noted that it did not hold "that racial hiring quotas for the teaching staff are per se improper to remedy a violation of the students' constitutional rights."

"The violation may be sufficiently egregious to warrant a temporary teacher-hiring quota at the time of the determination of the constitutional violation vis-a-vis the students," it continued. "But, generally, the wiser approach is a more flexible affirmative-action program rather than a hiring quota."

Spokesmen for the teachers' union, the school board, and the state of Michigan, which was also a party to the suit, all said it was too early to tell whether appeals will be made to the Supreme Court.

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