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Court Refuses To Modify Order Capping Ohio Share of Desegregation Costs

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The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit has ruled that a lower court erred in modifying a consent decree that had capped the State of Ohio's share of desegregation costs for the Lorain city school district.

The consent decree, which the state and the district had entered in a school-desegregation case that named them both as defendants, was "clear and unambiguous'' in placing a cap on the state's share of the costs, the appellate court ruled last month, and it should not be modified just because the cap was unrealistically low.

Thomas D. Bollin, the superintendent of the Lorain district, said last week that the appellate decision could leave the district having to repay the state $2.6 million and could put the city schools $4.5 million in the red by June. He said the district plans to appeal the decision.

The Sixth Circuit's findings appear to demonstrate the limits of a U.S. Supreme Court decision, handed down in January in a jail-overcrowding case, that was seen as easing efforts to modify consent degrees involving government institutions. (See Education Week, Jan. 22, 1992.)

The High Court held that the modification of an institutional consent decree may be warranted when changes in factual conditions or unforeseen obstacles make compliance more difficult, or when enforcing an unmodified decree would be detrimental to the public interest.

Lorain officials had argued that such was the case with their district, which had watched its desegregation costs rise significantly above the estimates it used in 1984 when it entered into the consent decree.

Mounting Magnet Costs

The decree, based on a belief that the desegregation plan would require 650 students to be moved to other schools, had capped the state's share of the costs during the first seven years of the plan at 50 percent, or $1 million, whichever was less.

By 1990, however, 3,500 of the district's 12,300 students were being served by the magnet program it established to desegregate schools, prompting the district to file a motion in U.S. District Court to increase the state's contribution.

The court modified the consent decree and ordered the state to pay 50 percent of Lorain's desegregation costs for the 1989-90 school year, about $2.6 million, and a declining percentage of its costs over the next four years, to total about $9 million.

The state appealed, asserting that the district court had overstepped its authority. (See Education Week, March 18, 1992.)

The school system cross-appealed, seeking to increase the state's share to 50 percent every year of the plan.

The appellate court ruled that the state had admitted no wrongdoing in entering the consent decree and thus bears no legal responsibility for segregation in Lorain schools. Therefore, it held, the state's financial liability should remain as set in the decree.

Mr. Bollin contended last week that Lorain officials were misled by the state when they entered into the agreement. "They led the people here at the time to believe that $2 million would do the project fairly adequately,'' he said. "They knew at the time this was not the case.''

Robert L. Moore, an assistant state superintendent of public instruction, replied: "We felt that all parties were on an equal funding [basis] at the time of the negotiations. That was borne out by the Sixth Circuit.''

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