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2 Suits, Board Rift Strain Durham, N.C., Merger

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Two lawsuits and a racially divided school board have strained the fledgling merger of the overwhelmingly black city and mostly white county school systems of Durham, N.C.

The North Carolina Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments this fall in a suit that alleges the state overstepped its authority in ordering the two districts joined over the objections of the affected school boards.

The suit, filed by local residents, is especially critical of the complicated election process adopted to ensure minority representation on the school board established to govern the new district.

The system, which uses a combination of at-large and ward elections to choose the board's seven members, "is set up in a fashion that dilutes the white vote," one of the plaintiffs, Hazard Cannon, said in an interview last week.

Such mergers usually are undertaken only at the behest of a court that has found the affected school districts guilty of prior racial segregation. In Durham's case, county commissioners had sought the merger because they felt it would benefit the schools involved, the plaintiffs have noted.

Another lawsuit, filed this summer in U.S. District Court, challenges the constitutionality of the merged district's policies in several areas, including student assignment and student transfers.

Local black activists, meanwhile, have protested a recent election for board officers. The merged district's white-dominated seven-member school board did not elect one of its three black members as an officer. The activists have said they will make this an issue when all seven board seats come up for election in the spring.

Despite such complications, several district officials maintained in interviews last week that combining the two systems was necessary and worthwhile and that the process, now in its third year, is going fairly well.

Superintendent C. Owen Phillips, who is white, said most parents in the consolidated, 28,000-student system appear to be satisfied with the merger. Enrollment is up and white families have remained.

"We have not lost sight of our fundamental goal, which is improving student learning," Mr. Phillips said.

Forced Marriage

In 1991, the year before the districts merged, the 8,000-student city system was about 95 percent black and relatively poor. Its students tended to rank near the bottom statewide in achievement. The 18,000-student county system was nearly two-thirds white and tended to rank near the top.

"There was a real disparity," Mr. Phillips said last week. "The city and county did not have equal resources."

Members of the county commission, which provided both districts with about 30 percent of their funding, believed the only way to address the city district's problems was to merge the two systems and combine their tax bases. At the time, however, the merger could only be accomplished through a referendum, which seemed unlikely to pass, or with the approval of the districts' school boards, both of which were overwhelmingly opposed.

The county commission turned to the state legislature, lobbying it to pass a law in 1991 that authorized the state education department to order the districts merged at the commission's request. The districts were legally merged in 1992, but the process of combining them continues.

School Board Rift

"Usually, when there is a merger, it is one system swallowing another. Here, it is like two tectonic plates of equal strength," Nancy M. Jirtle, the chairwoman of the district school board, said.

The merged district's leaders immediately set out to equalize resources, spending millions to provide the city schools with new technology and teachers specializing in computers, foreign language, art, and music that they had not had before. They also used a $200 million building program to renovate city schools.

Although the overall enrollment of the district is 55 percent black, 40 percent white, and 5 percent members of other minorities, more than a third of its 43 schools remained predominantly black as of fall 1993. The district set a goal of bringing every school's black enrollment within 15 percentage points of the district average; it has accomplished this in 26 schools so far through redrawn school boundaries and a variety of programs such as magnet schools.

In June, several students, parents, and a local advocacy group called Education First filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the district's reassignment of students and its rejection of transfer requests based on race.

The four whites on the school board angered black residents when, in July, they voted to unseat John Lucas, the board's black vice chairman, and to name white board members as its chairman and vice chairman. The black board members accused them of illegally orchestrating their votes to keep blacks from holding the office.

"To come up with an alignment where you have a white superintendent, a white chair, and a white vice chair is unconscionable in light of the diversity of the population that this leadership purports to serve," Howard Clement 3rd, a city council member, said.

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