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Justice Officials Lambast Little Rock Merger Plan

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Washington--The Justice Department filed documents with a federal appeals court last week harshly criticizing a lower-court order requiring the merger of the predominantly black Little Rock, Ark., school district with two predominantly white suburban districts.

"Federal courts are not at liberty to exercise their remedial powers merely to achieve socially desirable ends," the department said of U.S. District Judge Henry Woods's April 1984 order mandating the consolidation of the districts. "To the contrary, federal courts are required to tailor the scope of the remedy to fit the nature and extent of the violation."

The appropriate remedy for student segregation in the area would be an injunction prohibiting student transfers that would increase racial imbalance in the three districts "and possibly a requirement that the districts allow voluntary majority-to-minority interdistrict transfers and create additional magnet schools," the department suggested in the friend-of-the-court brief it filed on March 4 with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.

The Pulaski County and North Little Rock school districts asked3the Eighth Circuit Court last December to overturn Judge Woods's April 1984 ruling and his approval last November of a consolidation proposal presented to him by the Little Rock city school district. The state of Arkansas, also named as a defendant in the case, has appealed a section of the judge's ruling requiring it to assume the cost of consolidation, which it estimates will be between $3 million and $5 million a year for the first five years of the plan.

In his opinion of last April, Judge Woods ruled that the two suburban districts and the state, in concert with other public and private agencies, acted in a manner that contributed to segregated housing and other conditions that resulted in increasing segregation in the Little Rock public schools. Stating that education in the area had reached a ''crisis stage," he ordered the consolidation of the districts as the "only long-term or even short-term solution to these problems." (See Education Week, April 25, 1984.)

Early this year, a group of defendants in the case led by former Gov. Frank White met here with William Bradford Reynolds, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, to request the Reagan Administration's assistance in their fight to prevent the consolidation plan from taking effect.

Plan's Provisions

The plan adopted by Judge Woods would divide the area covered by the three existing districts into six subdistricts. The racial composition of each school in the new district would reflect, within 25 percentage points, the racial composition of the consolidated district as a whole--which would be approximately 60 percent white and 40 percent black.

The plan also envisions the creation of a single areawide school board about 18 months after consolidation takes effect; the pooling and desegregation of teaching and administrative staffs; the establishment of magnet schools in predominantly black neighborhoods; and the imposition of a uniform school-tax rate throughout the region. (See Education Week, Dec. 5, 1984.)

Flaws Alleged

In its brief, the Justice Department contended that Judge Woods's order requiring the consolidation of the districts was flawed in several respects.

For example, it labeled as "clearly erroneous" the judge's finding that the state and the suburban districts had engaged in racially motivated gerrymandering of school-district boundaries. It also concluded that the judge's findings regarding public and private housing discrimination had "nothing to do with discrimination by the districts."

The Justice Department also faulted Judge Woods for failing to consider "the incremental interdistrict effect of each violation and tailoring its remedy precisely to those effects" as required by a 1977 U.S. Supreme Court decision in a case involving the Dayton, Ohio, public schools.

"Because there is no systemwide effect here, the district court should not have imposed a systemwide remedy," the department concluded.

The case is Pulaski County Special School District v. Little Rock School District.

Other Activity

In another long-running school-desegregation dispute, lawyers representing officials of the Denver public schools and minority parents recently revealed that talks aimed at ending a federal district judge's involvement in the school district's affairs have broken down.

Gordon Greiner, who represents the minority-group plaintiffs in Keyes v. School District No. 1, was recently quoted in press reports as saying the negotiations are "a dead letter."

The school district's lawyer, Michael Jackson, stopped short of saying that the negotiations were dead, but acknowledged that they had become "stalled" because of time constraints. He noted that the school board had until recently been preoccupied with the selection of a new superintendent.

The parties to the lawsuit began negotiations last fall aimed at settling questions over the racial composition of some schools in the district before U.S. District Judge Richard P. Matsch rules on a motion by the city school board that he declare the district fully desegregated, or "unitary," and end his involvement in the case.

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