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Supreme Court Refuses To Decide Boston Affirmative-Action Lawsuit

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Washington--The U.S. Supreme Court last week declined to rule on the constitutionality of lower-court orders requiring the city of Boston to lay off senior white firefighters and police officers in order to protect the jobs of recently hired minority workers.

The Justices, in a short, unsigned opinion, decided instead to send the case back to the lower courts to determine whether there is a "live" legal issue left for them to rule on. They said their decision not to rule on the merits of the case was based on an act of the Massachusetts state legislature in 1982 that provided the city with enough money to rehire all of the workers affected by the layoff order.

The Justices strongly hinted that they would not rule on the substantive issues in the case, Boston Firefighters Union, Local 718 v. Boston naacp, when they heard oral arguments in the lawsuit late last month. The Justices repeatedly questioned lawyers arguing the case as to whether there was anything left for them to decide, because all of the laid-off workers were back on the job. (See Education Week, April 27, 1983.)

Educators and teachers' unions closely monitored the progress of the Boston Firefighters case because the Court's decision could have affected the status of similar litigation involving affirmative-action plans for teachers, administrators, and nonteaching staff members.

Earlier this month, for example, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled that a federal district judge "erred" when he imposed a racial quota for the hiring and composition of the Kalamazoo, Mich., public schools' teaching staff. (See Education Week, May 18, 1983.) That decision appeared to run counter to an opinion in 1982 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit that upheld a similar plan for the Boston public schools.

The Supreme Court declined to review the Boston teachers' case last October, then surprised observers by agreeing to hear the similar Boston police and firefighters' case a few weeks later.

The Court may get another chance to rule on the legality of race-conscious layoffs if the Kalamazoo teachers' case, Oliver v. Kalamazoo Board of Education, is appealed. Spokesmen for the Michigan Education Association and its Kalamazoo affiliate, which supported the senior white teachers in the Oliver case, said last week that they have not yet decided whether they will ask the Court to review the Sixth Circuit's opinion.

Profoundly Disabled Students

In other action last week, the Justices declined to review a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit upholding the right of state administrative hearing offi-cers to make final decisions regarding the educational placement of profoundly disabled students.

Lawyers for the Springdale, Ark.,school district had argued that a state hearing officer had no right to substitute his own opinions for those of educational experts who developed an individualized education program (iep) for Sherry Grace, a 14-year-old deaf girl. They based their claim on the Court's decision last year in Rowley v. Board of Education of Hendrick Hudson Central School District, which held that federal courts could not substitute their opinions for those of educational experts who develop iep's, except in cases where there had been a violation of due-process procedures. (See Education Week, Aug. 18, 1982.)

According to court records, Springdale school officials developed an iep for the Grace child that would have placed her in the Arkansas School for the Deaf, a state institution that she attended before her parents moved from Little Rock to Springdale. Her parents objected to the placement, arguing that she should instead be taught in the local schools in a "one-on-one" teaching situation.

A state hearing officer overturned the school district's placement decision, ruling that the student should be taught in her hometown. His ruling was upheld by a federal district judge and the Eighth Circuit Court.

The case is Springdale School District v. Grace.

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