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Racial-Bias Lawsuit Threatens To Disrupt N.C. Board Elections

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A racial-discrimination lawsuit filed in federal court by three Durham, N.C., residents threatens to disrupt school board elections scheduled for this spring in the 28,000-student district.

The elections stem from the 1992 merger of the school districts of mostly white Durham County and the city of Durham, which has a predominantly black population.

The suit filed in U.S. District Court in Raleigh last month is the latest challenge by the three white residents, who oppose the consolidation. They argue that the merger--and the plan for electing school board members in the new district--leaves the merged district's white population underrepresented.

Hazard Cannon, Norman Phillips, and Dan Sizemore lost a similar fight against the merger in state courts late last year.

Their latest suit challenges the portion of the merger agreement that calls for the use of racial calculations in determining the composition of the school board.

Injunction Sought

The Durham County Commission voted to merge the two school districts in 1991 in an effort to combine resources, reduce administrative costs, and improve the academic performance of the lagging city schools. (See Education Week, Sept. 20, 1995.)

The plan created a seven-member combined school board, with three members to be chosen from predominantly black districts, three from majority-white districts, and one elected at large.

The North Carolina legislature approved the merger, and the first elections under the new plan were held in 1992.

The plaintiffs contend that creation of an equal number of white- and black-majority districts misrepresents Durham County's population, which is nearly 69 percent white. Their suit demands an injunction against holding the next board election, scheduled for May 7, until the dispute is resolved.

The current election plan "has and will consistently degrade the influence of white voters," the lawsuit claims.

"There is no remedial purpose to having set-aside seats; blacks get elected without it," John Randall, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said last week. "It gives 31 percent of the people half the vote," Mr. Randall said. "And it denies 69 percent of the people their equal weight."

But a lawyer for several white Durham residents who have intervened in the case to support the election plan noted that the current school board, elected under the disputed plan, is made up of four white members and three black members.

"Their thrust is that there's a dilution of white votes, and frankly, that's preposterous," said the lawyer, Adam Stein.

'Supported Unanimously'

U.S. District Judge Earl Britt was scheduled to hold a hearing on the suit late last week.

After Mr. Randall's clients filed suit last month, the County Commission voted in favor of creating a school board election plan, but no such change can be made until Judge Britt rules on the case, explained Michael Crowell, who defended the commission in the suit dismissed by the North Carolina Supreme Court last year.

The decision on whether to uphold the current plan now rests with the federal court, and state law reserves the authority to change the school board election plan for the legislature and the school board itself.

Former County Commissioner William Bell, who chaired the body during its push for the merger, said changing the plan would be a mistake.

"It wasn't a plan that we decided on overnight--it was supported unanimously by the board of commissioners," he said.

"The school board was not constructed so that blacks would be on the board," Mr. Bell said. "What we wanted was some assurance that African-Americans would be represented."

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