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Court: State Must Pay Desegregation Costs

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The state of California reneged on its 1983 commitment to provide full funding for San Francisco's school-desegregation program, a federal district judge has ruled.

In a 27-page opinion handed down April 1, U.S. District Judge William H. Orrick ordered the state to pay the school district approximately $8 million, an amount he said had been improperly withheld since 1985.

That year, a bill passed by the legislature and signed by the governor amended a law that previously had provided all districts with full reimbursement for their desegregation costs. Under the amendment, reimbursements were limited to 80 percent of costs.

Judge Orrick held that the 1985 measure "threatens the future effectiveness and vitality'' of a 1983 consent decree that settled a desegregation suit filed by black families against the San Francisco district and the state board and superintendent of education.

The settlement, he said, assumed that the state would pay the full cost of the program. It also required the state school chief and board to help the district "document its claims for reimbursement'' and to "support such claims'' before the legislature, the state controller, and the state board of control.

Under the decree, the district agreed to convert four schools in the predominantly black Bayview/Hunters Point area into magnet schools; to prevent any of the city's racial or ethnic groups from constituting more than 40 percent of the enrollment in regular schools and 45 percent in the magnet programs; to integrate the district's staff and faculty; and to "secure policies and actions'' to integrate housing in the city.

It was estimated that the program would cost between $5 million and $6 million in its first year alone.

The state superintendent and board had argued before Judge Orrick that they were not responsible for the legislature and governor's decision to change the reimbursement program, and had faithfully complied with their responsibilities under the consent decree.

The judge rejected that position, holding that to do otherwise would allow the state "to flout its financial obligations and jeopardize the constitutional rights of schoolchildren.''

'Bureaucratic Shells'

"The state has indeed entered into a bargain ... to provide financial support vital to the schoolchildren of San Francisco,'' Judge Orrick wrote. "The state cannot now unilaterally change the terms of this bargain, while taking refuge behind different bureaucratic shells.''

"While the named defendants may be a specific state department and a particular state superintendent,'' the judge continued, "it is the height of legal formalism to say that these state defendants do not represent the state in any comprehensive manner.''

"This court will not permit the state to use mere semantics to shrug off the reimbursement responsibility it has voluntarily assumed.''

Aubrey McCutcheon, the lawyer for the San Francisco district, said he was "very satisfied'' with the judge's order.

"This was clearly a case where the parties reached an agreement, and then one party, either intentionally and inadvertently, attempted to undo what had been agreed to,'' he said. "In this case, the judge said he simply wouldn't allow that to happen.''

John Davidson, a deputy state attorney general who represented the state board and superintendent, noted that his clients "are in a bind'' because although they opposed the move to change the reimbursement program, they have no power over it.

"The judge bought the argument'' that the education officials are "the state'' for purposes of litigation, even though the state of California and officials responsible for fiscal matters were not actually named as defendants, he said.

Mr. Davidson said his clients had not yet decided whether to ask the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to review the decision. He also said it was unclear whether Judge Orrick's ruling would apply to other school-desegregation suits in California.--TM

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