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Trial Begins in Six-Year-Old Kansas City Desegregation Case

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Kansas City, Mo--A metropolitan school-desegregation suit involving Kansas City and 11 suburban school districts got under way in U.S. District Court here last week after more than six years of legal maneuvering.

The suit, Jenkins v. State of Missouri, seeks the reassignment of students between the Kansas City School District, where nearly 75 percent of the students are black, and the surrounding suburban districts, where black enrollment does not exceed 16 percent in any one system. Black students in seven of the 11 suburban school districts make up less than three percent of the total enrollment.

The plaintiffs--a group of schoolchildren represented by a local activist lawyer, Arthur A. Benson 2nd--filed the suit against Kansas City, the suburban districts, and the state and federal governments in May 1977. The plaintiffs contend that segregation in Kansas City is the result of the housing and other policies of the suburban jurisdictions, and that the state and federal governments did nothing to stop these allegedly unconstitutional practices.

The outcome of the case could affect the entire state if Missouri is required to pay a substantial part of the cost of desegregating the Kansas City-area schools.

Lawyers for the suburban districts are preparing an argument that, in effect, rejects the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education that separate schools are "inherently unequal." In documents filed with the court, lawyers for the suburban districts have argued that blacks can perform as well academically in the mostly black Kansas City schools as they could in a more integrated school system.

"Courts, social scientists, and educators realize, as the plaintiffs now do, that black children can be educated without regard to forced racial balance of any type," defendants' lawyers wrote in a recent motion for the court. "This is a key admission for the proper disposition of this case."

The plaintiffs' lawyers have agreed that black children can learn in the absence of white children, but add that a segregated education is still unequal because it leaves black children outside the mainstream of society.

For the past several years, the Kansas City suit has moved slowly in the shadow of the larger and better-known metropolitan desegregation case in greater St. Louis. That case was settled recently when the St. Louis city school district and 23 neighboring school systems agreed to a voluntary plan to exchange students. (See Education Week, July 27, 1983.)

The Kansas City suit, however, now has the full attention of state officials, who already have been ordered to pay for a large part of the St. Louis plan by U.S. District Judge William L. Hungate. Estimates of the plan's cost, for which the state contends it has illegally been held responsible, during the first year alone have ranged from $45 million to $75 million.

State officials fear that a similar metropolitan desegregation plan in Kansas City, which sits across the state from St. Louis, could jeopardize the state's $771-million school-aid program. The state school-foundation program already ranks as one of the lowest in the nation in terms of the size of taxpayers' contribution to education.

"I would assume, if worst came to worst, the revenues issued to school districts would decline in the out-state areas in order to finance, in a sense, greater payments to the urban metropolitan areas," said James Bliss, director of school finance for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

James S. Liebman, a lawyer for the n.a.a.c.p. Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., which joined the case in May 1982 on behalf of the plaintiffs, said in his opening remarks that the continuing racial segregation of Kansas City schools and housing was not an accident or the reflection of individuals' personal preferences to live with people of their own race. Instead, Kansas City has become one of the most segregated cities in the country because of actions taken by various state, federal, and local agencies in many areas, particularly housing, Mr. Liebman argued.

The 36,000-student Kansas City school district has operated under a voluntary desegregation plan since 1977, when it reached an agreement with the U.S. Education Department's office for civil rights.

Since then, white enrollment, which had been steadily decreasing prior to the plan, dropped from 14,378, or 31 percent of the total, to 10,184, or 27.3 percent.

Mr. Liebman argued that after the Brown decision, local districts had not only a responsibility to stop discriminating, but also an affirmative duty to take "appropriate" steps to further integration.

Most of the nearly 30 lawyers representing defendants in the suit chose to delay their opening remarks until after the plaintiffs have presented their evidence.

In documents filed with the court before the trial, however, lawyers for the defendants have argued that existing racial residential patterns, which have created predominantly black schools in the inner city and predominantly white schools in the suburbs, are due to factors beyond governmental control.

"There are no impediments or barriers to black children attending any district if their parents choose to move there, consistent with their own preferences, economic condition, and other private reasons that influence why people live where they do," lawyers representing the suburban districts wrote in a pretrial brief. Defendants also have argued in pretrial documents that they have no legal duty to take appropriate actions that would promote integration.

Testimony in the first several days of the trial has concerned discriminatory acts by school districts and state and federal agencies prior to 1954.

One of the plaintiffs' central argu-ments is that blacks were drawn into the inner city because that was the only place where good schools or high schools were open to them. That testimony has kept attorneys for the defendants constantly rising from their seats to protest that such facts are irrelevant, because the school districts admit to discriminatory acts before the Brown decision.

Although U.S. District Judge Russell G. Clark has constantly warned the plaintiffs' lawyers that they are spending time "on facts which this case will not turn on, one way or another," he has allowed the testimony in most instances to continue. The lawyers have told the judge they hope to show how discriminatory acts before and after 1954 had lingering effects on area blacks, influencing where they live today and where they send their children to school.

The plaintiffs are expected to call 500 witnesses and present 4,300 exhibits; the defendants plan to call about 400 witnesses and present 3,000 pieces of evidence. Other issues that will unfold as the trial progresses are:

Autonomy. Plaintiffs will argue that local school districts are agents of the state and are responsible for any actions for segregation taken by the state. Defendants argue that decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court and lower courts support their view that Missouri school districts are autonomous political entities that can be held responsible only for their own actions.

Quality of education. Lawyers for the suburban schools will argue that the city school system has abundant resources but lacks the will to have excellent schools.

"Instead of concentrating on educational objectives, the Kansas City school district has focused on social goals and social manipulation, with the result being an alienation of the public, patrons, parents, and students," the lawyers for the defendant districts said in their brief. "Over time, they can correct these problems without running the risk of damaging other districts."

Local control. The plaintiffs will argue that when the state helped keep black students in segregated schools, it and local districts paid no attention to the boundaries they now assert are inviolate. Defendants claim that metropolitan school desegregation is contrary to the principle of local control and would do more harm to society than good.

Such desegregation would depend on factors beyond the court's control, the defendants assert, and would force the court to adopt standards and issue orders that would be unmanageable.

Discrimination after 1954. To support their allegation that suburban districts chose the most segregative option when alternatives were available, the plaintiffs will point to the establishment of regional vocational-education districts in the suburbs that excluded Kansas City.

Suburbs in Kansas. Johnson County, Kan., is an affluent white community to the west of Kansas City. The Shawnee Mission School District, which is located in Johnson County, has a reputation as one of the best school districts in the country, and many Kansas City officials believe it has "bled" white middle-class students from the city's schools. The judge removed all of the Kansas school districts from the suit in 1978, however. The defendants plan to argue that a metropolitan plan will not work without the participation of Johnson County.

The parties have lined up as witnesses and consultants some of the most prominent desegregation researchers in the nation, including Gary Orfield of the University of Chicago, David Armor of National Policy Analysts Inc., and Charles Benson of the University of California at Berkeley.

In a related development, Gov. Christopher S. Bond of Missouri last week appointed five members of his administration to monitor court-ordered state payments for school desegregation in St. Louis and Kansas City.

The Governor's executive order, signed on Nov. 1, appointed the attorney general of the state, John Ashcroft, as chairman of the Metropolitan Desegregation Task Force. Also named to the panel were Arthur Mallory, state commissioner of education; Mel Carnahan, state treasurer; James Antonio, state auditor; and John Peltzer, state commissioner of administration.

"It is imperative that we establish a watchdog group to ensure that our money is being spent as reasonably as possible," Governor Bond said.

The task force, he said, will have five purposes:

To determine whether desegregation expenditures are properly documented and accounted for by the school districts.

To review the financing of the desegregation programs.

To determine the state's share of desegregation costs.

To determine whether the school districts are desegregating schools in compliance with court orders.

To identify improvements in the operation of desegregation plans for better economy and efficiency.

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