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Court Urged To Order N. Dakota To Provide Free Busing

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WASHINGTON--A lawyer for an impoverished North Dakota family urged the U.S. Supreme Court last week to strike down a state law that provides free bus transportation to students in some districts but requires those in other districts to pay for such services.

In a rural state like North Dakota, where schools are often 25 miles or more from a family's home, said the lawyer, Duane Houdek, access to a school bus "is very much access to education, especially when a family has no money'' to pay transportation fees.

"We're not talking about a school benefit like a band uniform,'' he said. "This is very much part and parcel of the school.''

But the state's attorney general countered that the law at issue was intended to encourage small systems to consolidate. Because the measure has a "rational basis,'' he said, it does not deprive students of their 14th Amendment right to equal protection under the law.

Reorganization Law

The case, Kadrmas v. Dickinson Public Schools (Case No. 87-7113), revolves around a state law passed in the late 1940's that provided tax incentives to districts that closed schools and moved students to centralized facilities in order to cut costs.

The 263 districts that have since "reorganized'' are required to provide students with free bus service. The remaining 48 districts retain the option of charging parents for transportation.

The Dickinson district, which has not reorganized, requires families to pay for their children's transportation at the time of registration. The annual fee ranges from $97 for one student to $315 for a family enrolling five or more children.

Financial Hardship

Paula Kadrmas, who claimed she could not afford to pay the fee for her one school-age child, Sarita, filed suit in a county district court, charging that the state law and the district's policy violated the 14th Amendment. The trial court dismissed her suit, and the state supreme court upheld the ruling in 2-to-1 decision in March of last year.

According to Mr. Houdek, the Kadrmas family "had only $12,000 to live on for the year'' at the time the suit was filed, and since then its financial situation "has greatly deteriorated.''

"Everyone involved in this case and the courts below recognize the essential nature of transportation to education in North Dakota,'' he told the Justices.

"What we're talking about is the denial altogether of a central part of education in the state,'' he continued. "If Sarita lived in almost any other district, we wouldn't be here.''

Nicholas Spaeth, North Dakota's attorney general, argued that because the family has continued to drive Sarita to school and back while the case has been pending, she has never been denied an education. Therefore, he said, the suit may not be "ripe'' for review by the Court.

Mr. Spaeth also contended that under the Court's precedents, in this case the state only needs to offer a rational basis for its policy to withstand 14th Amendment scrutiny. The justification for the disparate treatment of school systems, he said, "is to encourage them to reorganize.''

"The quid pro quo of the law was to require districts that chose to reorganize to offer free transportation,'' he said. "It was intended to ease the fears of parents whose schools were closed that their children would not be bused to their new school.''

The Court is expected to hand down its decision in the case by late June.--T.M.

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