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Decision on Chicago Principal's Firing Overturned

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A federal appeals court has overturned a lower court's finding that minority parents on a local school council in Chicago engineered the firing of their school's principal because he is white.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled last month that there is no proof that council members discriminated against Walter Pilditch, the former principal of Morgan Park High School, when they voted in 1990 not to renew his contract.

Mr. Pilditch sued five parents on the 10-member council. (See Education Week, May 20, 1992.) A U.S. District Court jury dismissed charges against one of the parents, who is Hispanic, but found that the remaining four defendants, all African-Americans, had violated Mr. Pilditch's civil rights.

The jury awarded the principal $62,085 in compensatory damages and ordered the four council members, one of whom had abstained from voting on Mr. Pilditch's renewal, to pay him punitive damages ranging from $1,000 to $3,000.

A federal district judge subsequently threw out the punitive-damage awards but increased the amount of compensatory damages by $92,465.

The appellate court, however, concluded that there was no solid evidence that the council members intended to get rid of Mr. Pilditch because of his race.

'Paltry Record'

"The only way to conclude based on this paltry record that the plaintiff was discriminated against because he was white is to make the illogical and insupportable assumption that every time a black council member votes against a white candidate, the decision is motivated by race,'' the appeals court said.

"The notion that all black decisionmakers are driven by this single issue rests on just the type of stereotype the civil-rights laws were designed to prevent from infecting personnel decisions; it would be painfully ironic if those same laws were here used to perpetuate such stereotypes,'' it added.

Robert Burghoff, Mr. Pilditch's lawyer, said he was "devastated'' by the appeals court's ruling.

"It was a very unfortunate decision,'' he said. "It seems to virtually require an admission of race discrimination to substantiate or prove a plaintiff's case, which nobody in their right mind does.''

But Calvin Pearce, the parent member who abstained from voting and later temporarily lost his council seat over the controversy, said he was gratified by the ruling.

"We did nothing wrong, except stand up for children,'' he said.

Mr. Berghoff said his client is considering whether to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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