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Effort To Nix Dade's Use of Public Funds in Legal Battle Blocked

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The Florida legislature's Miami delegation has been thwarted in its attempt to bar its local school board from using public money to pay for its legal battle against a voting-rights suit.

A legislative conference committee this month snubbed the legislators' attempt to insert a measure prohibiting such use of public funds from an appropriations bill.

The state House and Senate later passed the appropriations bill and sent it to Gov. Lawton Chiles for approval.

The board estimates that it would cost $105,000 to present its case in court, and, if unsuccessful, would likely have to pay the plaintiffs' legal expenses, estimated to exceed $500,000.

The black and Hispanic leaders who filed the suit are seeking to toss out Dade County's system of electing its school board members at large in favor of election by single-member voting districts.

The case had been expected to go to trial in U.S. District Court next month. But Betsy H. Kaplan, the chairwoman of the Dade County board, last week said the board had decided to mediate because of the legal costs associated with a trial and because it does not see much hope of winning the case.

"We would like to see a couple at-large seats'' remaining when the mediation is over, Ms. Kaplan said. "But,'' she added, "I don't see much hope for that.''

Not Taken Seriously

Rep. Luis C. Morse, the Republican from Miami who sponsored the measure, claimed to have all of Dade County's state representatives and many of its state senators behind his proposal to prohibit the Dade County board from using any public funds, including property taxes, to defend its at-large election system from the challenge mounted under federal voting-rights law.

"We have a limited amount of dollars for the education of our children,'' Mr. Morse said. "The protection of safe seats for our school board members is not the appropriate way to spend tax dollars.''

Mr. Morse had tried to get his proviso tacked onto the appropriations bill during conference-committee negotiations of House and Senate appropriations measures.

But David E. Lycan, the staff director of the House Appropriations Committee's education subcommittee, said last week that the measure "never really came up and was discussed,'' largely because it was viewed as unrealistic to ask Dade board members to pay their own legal representation or go without.

"I don't think anybody takes it seriously,'' Mr. Lycan said.

Many state legislators, Mr. Lycan said, support the switch to single-member district elections taking place in many other school districts and sought by the black and Hispanic plaintiffs in the Dade County case.

Dangers of Division

The seven-member Dade County school board has one black, one Hispanic, and five white members. The district's student population is less than 20 percent white.

The plaintiffs who filed the suit in March 1991 contend that the board's countywide election system has the effect of suppressing minority representation, in violation of federal voting-rights laws.

But G. Holmes Braddock, the school board's vice chairman, last week said a school board elected at large better represents the interests of the district's minorities.

Board members, he said, must address the needs of minorities throughout the city because "the Anglo vote is not enough to get elected on alone.''

The board had contended that blacks, who account for about 16 percent of the county's voting-age population, have been represented adequately, and that Hispanics constitute more than half the district's voting-age population and, therefore, cannot claim to be disenfranchised by at-large elections.

The population estimates are in dispute, however, largely because local elections officials have not asked voters to indicate race and have counted as Hispanic only voters who were born outside the United States.

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