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Appeals Court Declares Charleston Schools Unitary

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Charleston County, S.C., has eliminated the vestiges of educational segregation despite the fact many of its schools remain overwhelmingly black or white, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has ruled.

Although some fairly technical aspects of the case remain to be decided or settled in lower court, the circuit-court decision essentially relieves the 938-square-mile district of the possibility that it would have to bus students to achieve racial balance, laywers in the case said last week.

The court's decision "pretty much puts an end to litigation that has been pending now for 11 or 12 years'' and "lets the school district get back to education,'' said Alfred A. Lindseth, a lawyer from Atlanta who represented the county district.

Although all parties involved agreed that many facts of the case were unique, Mr. Lindseth last week asserted that, because of the legal issues involved, a ruling against the district "would have had a chilling effect on state legislators or even local school districts that want to equalize funding, equalize curriculum, that type of thing.''

At the heart of the case was the fact that Charleston County comprised eight smaller districts, including the city of Charleston, that remained legally separate entities until 1967, when the state general assembly passed a law creating the Charleston County School District.

The law, designed to overcome funding disparities within the county, allowed the eight districts to exist as "constituent districts,'' retaining many of their former powers over student assignment and other areas. The newly created county district was charged, however, with evenly distributing county tax revenues.

Schools within each constituent district were racially balanced through the redrawing of attendance boundaries, and the U.S. Education Department's office of civil rights approved every desegregation plan submitted by the district annually between 1969 and 1979.

But a wide variance remained among the eight constituent districts in terms of their racial composition, with schools in some constituent districts, especially in rural parts of the county, remaining predominantly white or virtually all-black.

Suit Filed in 1981

In 1981, the U.S. Justice Department filed suit against the county and state on behalf of black schoolchildren, alleging that the 1967 law illegally segregated schools by allowing the constituent districts to retain their powers over student assignment.

Lawyers for the consolidated district, however, maintained that it had no duty to bring about racial balance among the constituent districts. The presence of rivers and bays between the smaller districts made transporting students among them extremely difficult, they argued.

In a March 12 decision, the appeals court upheld a U.S. District Court ruling that the constituent districts were unitary and the county district had no obligation to bring about countywide racial balance.

"By undertaking to eradicate unequal tax bases in Charleston County,'' the appeals panel said, "the General Assembly did not assume a duty to consolidate authority over teacher and pupil assignment and transfer.''

Judge James M. Sprouse, dissented, however, arguing that state laws had required the boundaries among the eight constituent districts to be drawn in a race-conscious manner.

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