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Court Rejects Race-Based Teacher Layoff in N.J.

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A New Jersey school board's decision to retain a black high school teacher over an equally qualified white teacher to preserve racial diversity violated federal law, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The Piscataway, N.J., district will appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, said its lawyer, David B. Rubin.

The closely watched case involves the school board's 1989 decision to lay off Sharon Taxman, a white business teacher at Piscataway High School, rather than Debra Williams, a black teacher with equal qualifications and length of service.

The board cited its desire to maintain racial diversity as a factor in the decision. Ms. Williams was the business department's only black teacher.

The case has become a lightning rod in the debate over affirmative action, in part because the federal government tried to reverse its position in the case.

The U.S. Department of Justice filed the discrimination case on Ms. Taxman's behalf during President Bush's administration. After the election of President Clinton, the department sought to switch sides and defend race-based employment decisions designed to promote diversity. (Please see "Justice Dept. Flips Stand on Affirmative-Action Case," September 14, 1994.)

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit essentially threw the Justice Department out of the case last year as it weighed the district's appeal of a lower court ruling in Ms. Taxman's favor. (Please see "Court Knocks Justice Dept. Out of Race-Bias Case," December 13, 1995.)

Divided Ruling

In last month's 8-4 decision in Taxman v. Board of Education of the Township of Piscataway, the full 3rd Circuit court affirmed a federal district judge's ruling that the school district violated federal anti-discrimination law.

The school board violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as interpreted by two Supreme Court decisions, U.S. Circuit Judge Carol Los Mansmann said in the majority opinion on Aug. 8. The board did not retain the black teacher for the permissible purpose of remedying past discrimination in its employment practices, the majority opinion said.

"The harm imposed upon a nonminority employee by the loss of his or her job is so substantial and the cost so severe that the board's goal of racial diversity, even if legitimate under Title VII, may not be pursued in this particular fashion," Judge Mansmann wrote.

In a dissenting opinion, 3rd Circuit Chief Judge Dolores K. Sloviter said the board should have been allowed to base its decision on its expert judgment that "students derive educational benefit by having a black faculty member in an otherwise all-white department."

The case has been debated from newspaper columns to the floors of Congress. Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole has come down in favor of Ms. Taxman, while President Clinton has said he supports the school board.

Ms. Taxman was later rehired by the district, where she still works, said her lawyer, Stephen E. Klausner. The appeals court also upheld the district court's decision to award her more than $134,000 in back pay and interest, as well as the restoration of her seniority.

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