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Appeals Court Drops Little Rock Consolidation Offer

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A federal appeals court, acting in a major interdistrict school-desegregation case, has rejected a lower court's order that would have forced the consolidation of the predominantly black Little Rock (Ark.) School District with two predominantly white suburban districts.

In its place, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit on Nov. 7 ordered shifts in district boundaries that are expected to boost white enrollment in Little Rock from 29 percent of the total to 43 percent.

The court also called for the establishment of magnet schools in predominantly black neighborhoods in Little Rock and encouraged the three districts to establish a voluntary cross-district busing program similar to the one it approved for the St. Louis metropolitan area two years ago. Much of the cost of these provisions, as yet undetermined, would be borne by the state of Arkansas, which was named as a defendant in the suit.

The 6-3 vote in the case--Little Rock School District v. Pulaski County Special School District--was taken by the full panel of Eighth Circuit judges.

Lawyers involved in a similar suit in the Kansas City, Mo., area watched with keen interest the developments in the Little Rock case. The same appeals-court judges heard opening arguments in the Kansas City case early last week.

The Pulaski County school board voted last week to ask the U.S. Su-preme Court to overturn the appeals court's ruling in the Little Rock suit.

Gov. Bill Clinton, meanwhile, told reporters shortly after the decision was handed down that he had not yet decided whether to file an appeal in the case.

"It's a cost-benefit issue with me," the Governor was quoted as saying. He added that the appeals panel "seemed to be reaching" and was "pretty tenuous" in requiring the state to pay for parts of the remedy.

Little Rock school officials, while disappointed that the court did not accept their arguments in favor of consolidation, will not challenge the ruling, said Julia McGehee, a spokesman for the school board.

"While we believe that consolidation is still the best long-term solution, we will cooperate to make the court order work," she said.

Latest Chapter

The move by Little Rock officials to win an order requiring the consolidation of the three districts was the latest chapter in the history of one of the nation's longest-running school-desegregation disputes.

The most recent phase in the case began in November 1982, when Little Rock filed suit against the state and the Pulaski County and North Little Rock school districts, charging that their actions over the years had contributed to segregation in the Little Rock schools.

The city school officials argued that consolidation of the districts offered the only long-term solution to segregation in the city district, whose white enrollment has dropped fromel14l52 percent of the total when busing began in 1973 to just under 30 percent in the current school year.

U.S. District Judge Henry Woods accepted the Little Rock district's arguments in April 1984, ruling that public education in the area had reached "a crisis stage" that could be remedied only by consolidation. The defendants in the case, with the Reagan Administration's support, filed appeals in the case, contending that the remedy ordered by Judge Woods did not match the violations at issue as required under Supreme Court precedents.

In an 89-page ruling, the Eighth Circuit Court sustained the district judge's findings on the state and the suburban districts' liability for segregation in Little Rock, noting its agreement that consolidation would represent "the most cost-efficient and effective" manner of correcting the situation.

However, the court continued, it could not impose such a remedy if it was not constitutionally required. The district court, the appeals panel ruled, "erred in holding that consoli-dation was the only remedy that would effectively cure the interdistrict violations."

Boundary Changed

The court then vacated Judge Woods's order and entered one of its own, which shifted the boundary between the Little Rock and Pulaski County districts. Under the change, Little Rock will gain 8,103 students from Pulaski County, of whom 5,963 are white and 2,140 are black. Pulaski County will receive 749 students from Little Rock, practically all of whom are black.

The court left the North Little Rock district's boundaries intact, noting that its violations were not as major as those of Pulaski County.

In addition, the appeals panel encouraged the development of a voluntary cross-district busing plan-- the cost of which would be borne by the state--and the establishment of magnet schools designed to attract white suburban students to the Little Rock schools.

Boston's 'Unfinished Business'

In another school-desegregation development this month, the federal district judge in the Boston public-school case explained his decision to retain "standby" jurisdiction in some school affairs.

In a 33-page memorandum released on Nov. 1, U.S. District Judge W. Arthur Garrity explained that there was "considerable unfinished business in the prolonged process of desegregating Boston's public schools.''

He said his intent was "to remove the case from the active docket and close the file," while retaining the option of reopening the case if his orders were not being carried out.

In early September, the judge issued his final orders in the lawsuit, an act that essentially removed him from daily supervision of the school district's affairs for the first time in 13 years.

Among the areas in which Judge Garrity retained jurisdiction are school maintenance and renovation, faculty and staff desegregation, and parent and student organizations.

St. Louis Bond Issue

In another city whose desegregation efforts have been closely watched, St. Louis voters have again rejected a school-bond issue, which would have funded school repairs ordered by a federal district court.

The vote followed an order by the court overseeing the metropolitan area's school-desegregation program that the district provide $20- million to make what were described as desperately needed building repairs.

According to school officials, the $155-million bond issue was approved by 55 percent of the voters on Nov. 5. Missouri law requires, however, that such measures be approved by two-thirds of those voting.

The defeat marked the 10th consecutive time in 23 years that St. Louis voters have rejected a school-bond issue. Margaret Polcyn, a spokesman for the district, said school officials may resubmit the bond issue to the voters as early as next spring.

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