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Desegregation Costs Put Ga., Ohio Officials at Odds With Districts

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Ohio and Georgia officials have become enmeshed in legal battles with school districts over who should foot the bill for rising school-desegregation costs.

Lawyers for the state of Ohio last month asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit to overturn a federal district court's ruling that expanded the state's responsibility to fund school desegregation in Lorain County under the terms of a consent decree.

In Georgia, state lawyers argued in a federal court last month that the state should not be required to pay to eliminate racial imbalances in the Savannah-Chatham County schools that, the state alleges, were the result of student-assignment policies enacted by the local board.

The Ohio and Georgia disputes are emblematic of a number of cases in recent years in which states have come to loggerheads with districts over desegregation costs.

In many such cases, quarrels over the costs of desegregation have arisen or been intensified by the growing use of relatively new desegregation methods, such as magnet schools, that are more popular locally than involuntary busing but that also have resulted in cash-strapped states being hit with higher desegregation bills.

"As more and more local districts move away from mandatory-busing programs, which have not worked, to voluntary programs using magnet schools, which are expensive, more and more school districts are going to be looking for additional state funding,'' predicted Alfred A. Lindseth, a lawyer representing the Savannah-Chatham County school board.

The magnet-school costs are particularly galling to some state lawmakers, who argue that they are being forced to shortchange schools in other areas in order to fund expensive programs in a few districts.

"What we have been doing with these magnet schools is building incredible monuments which are attracting fewer than 500 students,'' asserted Representative John Hancock of Missouri, who recently introduced legislation to curtail rising state spending on school desegregation in Kansas City and St. Louis

In Arkansas, Lieut. Gov. Jim Guy Tucker is battling with three Pulaski County districts over the high costs of desegregating Little Rock schools. "Court orders don't mean we have to leave prudence at the door,'' he told a local newspaper recently.

'Wholly Unrealistic' Cap

The Ohio attorney general's office is contesting a decision last June by U.S. District Judge David D. Dowd to modify a 1984 consent decree between the state and Lorain County by requiring the state to pay more for school desegregation there.

Without admitting responsibility for school segregation in Lorain, the state had said in the consent decree that it would pay $1 million or 50 percent of the costs of desegregating Lorain, whichever was less.

The state paid $1 million to the district within the first few years of the decree. Pressed for money and surprised by higher-than-expected desegregation costs, the district then returned to court to ask Judge Dowd to re-examine the consent decree's cap on the state contribution.

Judge Dowd concluded that the cap on state funding in the consent decree had been "wholly unrealistic.'' It was based, he said, on a faulty estimate that 650 students would need to be moved to different schools to achieve long-term desegregation, when in fact the district needed to move more than 1,200 students.

Noting that the consent decree also calls more broadly on the state to help the district reach its desegregation goals, Judge Dowd said a modification of the decree was warranted. He ordered the state to pay more than $6 million toward the costs of desegregating the Lorain schools from 1989 through 1994.

Rita S. Eppler, chief of the federal-litigation section under Attorney General Lee Fisher, last week asserted that the district court erred in expanding the state's responsibilities beyond those called for in the consent decree. That was especially true, she argued, in light of the fact that the state had entered into the agreement without having been found liable for school segregation in Lorain.

Poor Management Seen

Ms. Eppler also accused the district of poor financial management. It had raised teacher salaries by more than 48 percent over five years, expanded its court-ordered magnet-school program to accommodate 1,350 students, and provided 2,200 students with magnet programs not required by the court, she contended.

"What you are looking at is an exponential increase of the most costly way possible to desegregate a school system,'' Ms. Eppler said.

"They simply couldn't afford what they put in place,'' she said, "and now they want the state to bail them out.''

Ms. Eppler also argued that the state is being billed for part of the costs of a bilingual-education program that the state did not agree to fund and that does not reduce racial isolation in Lorain schools.

Lorain officials have countered that the state is trying to shirk its responsibility to fund bilingual education and desegregated schools.

Jose C. Feliciano, a lawyer for the Coalition for Hispanic Issues and Progress in Lorain, last week argued that the district's bilingual programs foster integration by preparing language-minority children to successfully enter mainstream classrooms.

Experts say a ruling in favor of Lorain could trigger similar actions by Cincinnati, which is operating under a consent decree, or Cleveland, Dayton, and Columbus, which have been operating under court orders.

'The State Has Done Nothing'

The Savannah-Chatham County school board argues that the Georgia Department of Education should pay more than $40 million toward the costs of busing, magnet schools, and other desegregation measures that have cost the district $70 million over the last five years.

Alfred A. Lindseth, the district's lawyer, said the state--which once mandated segregated schools and later resisted desegregation--continues to refuse to pay anything toward the cost of transporting children away from racially imbalanced neighborhood schools.

"The local system has bent over backward to fulfill their obligation,'' he said. "The state has done nothing.''

But Alfred L. Evans Jr., senior assistant attorney general for the state, said the state was not responsible, and should not be held liable, for past decisions by local school boards to segregate students.

A similar suit against the state has been filed by the Dekalb County school board.

Mr. Evans warned last week that if the state loses the cases, it may be forced to provide desegregating districts an additional $100 million to $200 million, which would be taken from funding for schools in other parts of the state.

Other State Struggles

Other states involved in disputes with school districts over desegregation costs include:

  • Arkansas, where Mr. Tucker last month demanded an explanation from three Pulaski County districts where state-paid pupil-transportation costs have doubled to $3.5 million over the past three years.

If he does not get an adequate explanation from the three districts, Mr. Tucker said, he may take steps to withhold the state money used to transport their public-school students to magnet schools or from district to district under the terms of a desegregation settlement.

  • Missouri, where the House and Senate last week were considering bills that would replace federally supervised desegregation programs in St. Louis and Kansas City with locally administered voucher programs. Advocates say the change would trim $100 million from the $400 million now paid by the state to fund desegregation in those districts.
  • New York State, which is being sued by the Yonkers school board. Yonkers officials claim that the state contributed to the segregation of schools in the district and therefore should help remedy the problem.


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