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Judge To Be Asked To Close Cleveland Desegregation Case

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Cleveland was expected this week to begin the final chapter of a school-desegregation case that has divided the city for nearly 20 years.

The plaintiffs in the case, representing minority children, and the defendants, the Cleveland school district and the state of Ohio, planned this week to ask U.S. District Court Judge Frank J. Battisti to approve an agreement calling for an end to mandatory busing and the implementation of sweeping state-financed education reforms intended to help the district's minority children.

The agreement, reached late last month, marks the culmination of an intensive effort by civic groups to change the political landscape of the city, where the school board for years has been racially divided and focused on fighting the busing plan ordered in the case. Nearly all the winning candidates in the last two school board elections ran on pledges to end litigation and negotiate a settlement. (See Education Week, Nov. 10, 1993, and Nov. 13, 1991.)

"The memorandum is a major breakthrough for the city of Cleveland,'' said Carol S. Gibson, the executive director of the Cleveland Initiative for Education, an organization of corporations and philanthropies.

"People have spent a lot of time, and funders have put a lot of resources on the table, bringing elements of the community together and saying, 'What are those things we can all agree on?''' she said.

Superintendent Sammie Campbell Parrish said in a statement that the agreement was "the most significant education-reform package ever formulated for the school district.''

The agreement specifically embraces a reform plan, known as "Vision 21,'' developed by Ms. Parrish and passed by the board last year. While many people have worried that her plan would lack funding or become bogged down in disagreements, Ms. Parrish said, the agreement "can and should put these doubts pretty much to rest.''

To provide funding for the plan, the agreement calls on the state to contribute a total of $295 million over seven years to fund Cleveland's education reforms--provided the district is able to raise an amount nearly equal to that.

Levy Approval Needed

The laywers involved want Judge Battisti to schedule a hearing next month to determine if the agreement is fair to the students the plaintiffs say they represent. Leaders on both sides last week said that the agreement had encountered little or no opposition, and that they anticipated it would earn Judge Battisti's approval.

The key question remaining last week was whether Cleveland would be able to fulfill its end of the bargain in raising funds.

Under the agreement, the $295 million in state funding would come in district-determined payments of no more than $60 million in any given year.

The district would be required to match $275 million of that. Doing so would require passage in May of a property-tax levy.

Even as they were announcing the agreement, Ms. Parrish and Lawrence Lumpkin, the school board president, called on city voters to pass the 12.9 mill initiative.

"It is a real bellwether levy,'' said Richard A. DeColibus, the president of the Cleveland Teachers Union, noting that without its passage, the district will likely "remain underfunded.''

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ted Sanders last week said he has received assurances from Gov. George V. Voinovich that the state will fulfill its end of the bargain.

The state already is paying $37 million a year for Cleveland desegregation, with the money going primarily toward transportation, special reading programs, and administrative management of the effort. Funding the agreement would cost only an additional $36 million over the seven years, Mr. Sanders noted, and the state would get that back in the first year after the agreement and its financial obligation expired.

Mr. Sanders also said the court had appeared on the verge of increasing the state's current obligation in the case to up to $81 million annually, costing it $523 million over seven years and up to $1.6 billion if the case dragged on two more decades.

School Reconstitution Eyed

The agreement calls for the district to maintain racial balance in its schools through voluntary means, and to intervene in schools that exhibit substantial racial disparities in administering discipline.

The agreement also calls on the district to intervene in schools where student test scores are consistently low, holding as one possible tactic "reconstitution,'' or the wholesale replacement of administrators and teachers.

The list of additional educational initiatives incorporated into the agreement through its reference to the Vision 21 plan includes new reading programs, curriculum changes and teacher training to upgrade instruction, improved security in and around schools, partnerships with local businesses to provide job-training experiences, and improvements in middle and magnet schools. The plan would be fully implemented by 1997. (See Education Week, May 12, 1993.)

The agreement specifically puts aside, as a matter for resolution elsewhere, a conflict between the plaintiffs and the state over a state-mandated test of proficiency at the 9th-grade level, which beginning this year all students must pass in order to graduate.

The plaintiffs last month filed a motion to block the state from enforcing the requirement, arguing that the test was biased against black students, since race and ethnicity are the most powerful predictors of failure.

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