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Federal File: Conspicuous by its absence?; Educational merit

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The Justice Department's decision not to participate in a major school-desegregation case before the U.S. Supreme Court could be a sign that it is becoming kinder and gentler under the Bush Administration.

Department officials recently missed a deadline for filing briefs in the suit, which centers on a court-ordered property-tax increase to enable the Kansas City school district to pay its share of the nation's most expensive desegregation plan.

While William Bradford Reynolds was at the helm of the agency's civil-rights division, the department participated as a friend-of-the-court in the case, arguing before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit that the lower court reached "well outside the limits of its constitutional power in ordering a tax increase."

The department's failure to reiterate this argument before the Supreme Court "is a clear black-and-white instance" of a victory by moderates within the department, a former employee said.

A department spokesman, however, declined to give a reason for the decision not to file briefs in the lawsuit.

"Our normal practice is not to comment on why or why not we choose to participate in cases before the Supreme Court," she said.


Last year, the Merit Systems Protection Board reported that only 48 percent of the Education Department's employees were happy with their jobs, the lowest percentage of any agency in the board's survey.

But it seems the department's managers have little to complain about.

According to the Office of Personnel Management, only three other agencies gave a higher average score to their managers in performance evaluations. The ratings determine eligiblity for salary increases under the government's merit-pay plan.

The other three agencies with higher ratings--the State and Justice departments and the National Guard--were also the only ones that gave more of their managers the highest rating of "outstanding."

In 1987, the latest year for which figures are available, Education Department managers averaged 4.17 points out of 5. The Environmental Protection Agency posted the same average.

But each agency is limited to merit increases equal to 1.5 percent of its total payroll; therefore, more qualified employees means smaller bonuses for all.

Perhaps that explains the findings of the earlier survey.

--ws & jm

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