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Denver Schools' Plea To End Desegregation Suit Rejected

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Despite having complied with a court-ordered desegregation plan for the past 15 years, the Denver school district has not eliminated all vestiges of its prior dual system and must remain under court supervision, a federal appeals panel has ruled.

The ruling late last month marked the fifth time in the past year that a federal appellate court has rejected an attempt by a large district to end a lengthy desegregation suit.

It was also the second time in recent months that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit has repudiated the Reagan Administration's argument that districts that demonstrate compliance with a court-approved plan over a period of time have earned the right to be freed from judicial oversight.

"Compliance with even a court-approved desegregation plan, by itself and without proof of the executed plan's intention and effect, does not make a district unitary," or free of the vestiges of a dual system, wrote Judge James K. Logan for the unanimous three-member panel that handed down the new decision.

"When a school board has a duty to liquidate a dual system," the panel held, "its conduct is measured by the effectiveness, not the purpose, of its actions in decreasing or increasing segregation caused by the dual system."

The ruling will have no immedi4ate impact on the Denver schools, because it leaves intact a lower-court order that allows district officials some latitude in changing student-assignment policies without seeking court approval.

But it again highlights a question on which appeals courts are increasingly divided and that affects hundreds of districts: What steps must districts take to be relieved of court orders in desegregation cases?

Critical Issue Unsettled

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that school districts must act "with all deliberate speed" to eliminate unconstitutional segregation. But the Justices have yet to stipulate what measures and procedures the courts should use in determining whether a district has successfully discharged this duty.

Under the Reagan Administration, the Justice Department chose the Denver case, as well as a similar case involving the Oklahoma City schools, to put forward its view that when a district can prove it has made a "good faith" effort to comply with a desegregation plan, it should automatically be declared "unitary" and allowed to operate without continued oversight.

The Bush Administration's view on this critical issue is likely to become clear within the next month when Justice Department officials decide what stance to take on the Oklahoma City case, which the district has asked the High Court to review.

A decision last month by the Topeka, Kan., district to appeal a 10th Circuit ruling that it had not done everything "practicable" to desegregate its schools brings to three the number of cases the Supreme Court has been asked to hear that raise these issues.

In the third case, the Dekalb County, Ga., school board has said it will ask the Court to review an appellate decision requiring that district to take further steps to desegregate its schools.

As of late last week, the Denver school board had not decided whether to appeal its case to the Supreme Court.

Landmark Case

The Denver case is prominent in civil-rights history. The Supreme Court opened the door to a flood of desegregation suits against Northern districts when it ruled that the Denver schools were unconstitutionally segregated, even though they were not operating under astate law mandating separate schools for different races.

The current proceedings began in 1984, when the school board, citing 10 years of compliance with a court-ordered desegregation plan, asked the federal district court in the case to declare the system unitary and end the court's jurisdiction.

The court denied that motion, saying that the 1974 desegregation plan and later modifications were not sufficient to completely dismantle the dual system and that some board actions indicated an unwillingness to guard against resegregation.

In 1987, however, the district court decided "that it is time to relax the degree of court control" over the school system, and issued an "interim decree" prohibiting "governmental action which results in racially identifiable schools."

In its January decision, the 10th Circuit panel ruled that the lower court had not abused its discretion in reaching either of those decisions.

The panel said the fact that three of the district's elementary schools had again become racially identifiable "is strong evidence that the effects of de jure segregation have not been eliminated."

Because the district had not yet been declared unitary, the appellate judges said, "it is the district's burden to prove resegregation has resulted from demographic changes and not from actions of the board.''

In a separate desegregation case--one of the nation's newest--a federal judge has approved a negotiated settlement that will require the Fort Wayne, Ind., district to open almost a dozen new magnet schools and programs in an effort to desegregate its schools.

Private Donations Sought

The settlement includes an unusual provision for raising money from private donors to help the district fund remedial programs for students who need extra help. It establishes a committee of school officials, parents, and business leaders to decide how the money should be spent.

The suit was filed in 1985, when a multiracial group, called Parents for Integration with Quality Education, became dissatisfied with the progress of a discrimination complaint filed previously with the U.S. Education Department's office for civil rights.

The o.c.r. eventually reached an agreement with the district that required it to open several magnet schools, but did not include any back-up plans if the district failed to achieve racial-balance goals.

The new settlement requires the district to eliminate all racially identifiable schools, but does not specify what methods will be used if the magnet programs prove unsuccessful, according to William L. Taylor, a lawyer representing parents in the case.

He said the pact does not affect a separate portion of the case in which the district is seeking financial aid from the state as compensation for for its part in aiding discrimination in the Fort Wayne schools.

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