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Court Says Ga. Obligated To Share Desegregation Costs

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Georgia's history of official resistance to school desegregation leaves the state legally obligated to share the costs of desegregating schools, a federal district court has ruled.

In a suit brought against the state by the board of education for the city of Savannah and Chatham County, the court last month ruled that the state had fought desegregation while maintaining significant powers over the district, and therefore will have to share in the desegregation costs.

"Even if the state's current policies do not discriminate,'' the court ruled, "the state still may be liable for its past actions,'' which included the adoption of laws mandating school segregation as well as efforts to defend such segregation long after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional.

Although the responsibility for the day-to-day operation of school districts lies with local boards, the court said, the state retains considerable control over and responsibility for local board actions. As evidence, it pointed to the state's passage in 1987 of the Quality Basic Education Act, which mandated a statewide core curriculum.

The court added, however, that the district also bears responsibility for segregation and thus also should bear some costs for remedying it.

Moreover, it ruled, the state should not be required to pay for aspects of the district's desegregation plan that cannot be directly linked to the goal of desegregation.

The court ordered further proceedings to determine how the desegregation costs should be apportioned between the two sides. It gave the state an opportunity to reduce its share by demonstrating that a less expensive plan would have achieved the desired results.

The state currently pays the costs of transporting students only to schools in their attendance zones. It thus covers only a fraction of the transportation costs connected with a magnet-school plan adopted by the local board in 1988.

State Attorney General Michael J. Bowers last month said he does not plan to appeal the ruling but will seek to limit the state's financial liability for the desegregation plan.

Alfred A. Lindseth, a lawyer who represented the Savannah and Chatham County board, predicted that the court's decision may force the state to assume a larger share of school-desegregation costs in other districts as well.

Alabama Closing Barred

Meanwhile, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit last month appeared to create an exception to the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Freeman v. Pitts, the DeKalb County, Ga., school-desegregation case. (See Education Week, April 8, 1992.)

The appeals court blocked the Macon County, Ala., school district--whose racial balance has been upset by "white flight''--from closing its only remaining desegregated school. The Supreme Court held in Freeman that a district is not obligated to remedy school racial imbalances caused by demographic changes.

Explaining its decision in the Macon County case, a unanimous three-judge panel wrote: "[W]e are not requiring the [school] board to take any affirmative action to establish or maintain an integrated institution; rather, we are requiring that the board refrain from taking action.''

The enrollment of the school in question, Notasulga High School, is 64 percent black and 36 percent white. The district had proposed sending its students to a new, consolidated high school that otherwise would be 99 percent black.

But even if all of the white students at Notasulga were to attend the much larger new school, the consolidated school would still be 94 percent black, the court noted. As a result, it said, no student in the district could "observe, much less participate in, an integrated educational environment.''

In a school-closing case involving another Alabama district, the 11th Circuit Court last month reached a different conclusion. It said that Crenshaw County should be allowed to close the mostly black Dozier High School, in part because its closure would leave the district's other high school more integrated.

Cases Elsewhere

In other desegregation activity last month:

  • The Corpus Christi (Tex.) Independent School District was declared by a U.S. District Court to be unitary, or purged of the vestiges of official segregation.

The court ruled that the district had become desegregated to the extent practicable and educationally advisable, despite the fact that 18 of its elementary schools remain heavily segregated. Noting that the district has established special remedial programs in more than a dozen of the predominantly minority schools, the court accepted the district's pledge to enhance educational opportunities in the others.

  • The Providence, R.I., school board narrowly approved a "controlled choice'' plan that would allow parents to send their children to whichever schools they wished so long as their choices did not have the effect of exacerbating racial imbalances.
  • The Knox County, Tenn., school board voted to sue the county commission for refusing to fund a desegregation plan adopted by the board in April 1991.

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