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New Jersey High Court Sets Deadlines For State Chief, Board in Aid Lawsuit

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New Jersey's supreme court has ordered the state school commissioner and board of education to complete administrative hearings in a major school-finance lawsuit by mid-April.

The court rejected requests by state lawmakers and the 20 urban students who filed the class action, Abbott v. Burke, to bypass normal procedure and hear the case immediately.

But according to Marilyn J. Morheuser, the lawyer for the students, the Nov. 22 order is "a clear indication they want to get on top of this as soon as possible."

The state attorney general's office is considering whether to ask the supreme court to reconsider its deadline order, said John Haggerty, a spokesman.

Ms. Morheuser and the lawmakers had argued that quick action by the court was necessary because the suit is already seven years old and the administrative and judicial appeals process could drag on for months or years.

In its order, the court indicated that it might grant another motion asking it to assume immediate jurisdiction over the dispute after the commissioner and the board issue their rulings next spring.

Decades-Long Battle

The supreme court's action late last month was the latest mile4stone in a decades-long legal struggle over New Jersey's system of school aid.

The current system was adopted in the mid-1970's after the courts declared its predecessor unconstitutional. The Abbott suit, which was filed in 1981, charges that the new system perpetuates discrimination against students in urban districts.

The plaintiffs were dealt a setback in 1985 when the high court ruled that they had to exhaust administrative remedies before the state courts could rule on the merits of their suit.

The first stage of that process ended last August, when Administrative Law Judge Steven LeFelt issued a finding that the courts would probably rule that the new aid system violates the New Jersey constitution's mandate for a "thorough and efficient" system of education.

Under the administrative-law rules, Mr. LeFelt's decision was for8warded to Commissioner of Education Saul A. Cooperman, who may accept, reject, or modify it.

Mr. Cooperman's ruling, in turn, must first pass through the board of education and the appellate division of the superior court before it can reach the supreme court.

Court's Deadlines

In its order, the supreme court gave Mr. Cooperman until Feb. 28 to act on Mr. LeFelt's findings. It also instructed the state board to finish its action on the expected appeal of the commissioner's ruling by April 15.

The court also ordered that challenges to the board's decision be filed with the appeals court within seven days, rather than the standard 45 days.

The justices also asked both sides in the dispute to send them copies of the complete record, which now totals thousands of pages.

According to Ms. Morheuser, the court's action "is a clear indication they recognize the importance" of the lawsuit. "They recognize they must deal with it and deal with it seriously," she said.

Ms. Morheuser said the court's highly unusual request for copies of the record indicates to her that it wants to assume jurisdiction over the case. She said she would file a motion seeking such a step in April, adding that oral arguments could possibly be scheduled as early as next fall.

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