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Newark Suit Seeks To Block Threatened Takeover

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Arguing that a state takeover would undermine minority voting rights, a group of Newark, N.J., residents has filed suit to block the state if it attempts to seize control of the city's troubled school system.

The legal action is based on civil-rights laws rather than the quality of education in Newark, where a majority of residents are members of minority groups.

In the suit, which was filed this month in federal court, the plaintiffs contend that the contemplated state takeover of the school district would violate the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

"Depriving the voters of Newark of the right to vote for their board of education would be diminishing the rights of minorities,'' said Jeffrey E. Fogel, the lawyer representing the plaintiffs, all of whom are black or Hispanic.

Most of the plaintiffs have children or grandchildren in the schools. One of the parties to the suit is Carole A. Graves, the president of the local teachers' union.

The state education department is in the final stage of a lengthy process to determine if it should take over the 48,000-student system. State reports have portrayed Newark as a district rife with mismanagement and more interested in securing jobs for residents than in educating its students. (See Education Week, June 23, 1993.)

June Decision Expected

If the state decides to take over the district, it would remove the elected board members and top administrators and replace them with a state-appointed superintendent and an advisory board made up of local residents.

A decision by Commissioner of Education Leo F. Klagholz is expected in June.

The state previously has assumed control of the Jersey City and Paterson schools under New Jersey's pioneering takeover law. But the boards in those districts were appointed rather than elected.

New Jersey law allows board members to be chosen either by the voters or by municipal officials.

Win Tillery, the assistant state commissioner for policy and planning, said the education department could not comment on the suit due to the ongoing investigation. But he reiterated that no decision has been made on a takeover.

Meanwhile, New Jersey voters went to the polls last week to pick school board members and consider local school budgets for next year. In Newark, slightly more than 4 percent of 90,996 registered voters cast ballots on the budget. The turnout for board members appeared to be somewhat higher.

The average turnout statewide was 15.3 percent, according to the New Jersey School Boards Association.

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