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Court Rejects Aid Ordered for Phila. Schools

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Closing a turbulent chapter in Philadelphia's school-desegregation saga, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania last week overturned a lower-court ruling that had declared the state derelict in its duty to the city's public schools.

One immediate effect of the ruling was to get the state off the hook for $45.1 million in extra aid to the district. Commonwealth Court Judge Doris A. Smith had ordered Pennsylvania lawmakers to hand over the money to the 215,000-student district this year. ("State Ordered To Draft $45 Million Plan for Phila.," Sept. 4, 1996.)

But the high court's ruling left unresolved the larger question of whether Gov. Tom Ridge and the legislature will be held liable over the long run for the huge investment that the district insists is needed to revive its beleaguered schools.

An answer to that question now hinges on the high court. Following up on its unusual intervention in the case this summer, the justices last week seized full control of the 25-year-old desegregation lawsuit and relieved Judge Smith of any authority in the matter.

Judge Smith inherited the case in 1992 and in recent months had clashed with both the state and the district.

Courtroom Drama

In the spring, she threatened to jail David W. Hornbeck, Philadelphia's superintendent, during a showdown over spending priorities.

She also locked horns with lawyers for the state, who repeatedly sought to get her thrown off the case for alleged bias. The state also complained that the judge had inappropriately transformed the case from one about discrimination against black and Hispanic students--who now constitute 85 percent of enrollment--into one focused on funding equity.

In July, the supreme court announced that it was assuming jurisdiction in the case. It ordered Judge Smith to conclude her proceedings within 90 days, and to confine her deliberations to desegregation.

As part of that process, the district asked Judge Smith to force the state to provide $128 million for improvements to comply with a remedial order she handed down in 1994. In an Aug. 20 ruling, she lowered that figure to $45.1 million, but directed the state to show by Sept. 20 how it would it come up with the money. Last week's supreme court decision came in response to an appeal by the state.

Merits Not Addressed

Gov. Ridge hailed the supreme court ruling, saying that state taxpayers make an "extraordinary" and disproportionate investment in city schoolchildren. The state paid about 60 percent of the system's $1.45 billion budget this year.

"The district educates fewer than 12 percent of Pennsylvania's public school students, yet it receives 18 percent of the state's public school subsidy," the Republican governor said.

But others downplayed the decision.

Barbara Grant, a spokeswoman for the school system, said district officials have realized since the high court's July decision that they would have to await its final judgment in the matter.

"We haven't really had our day in court yet," she said. "It's not over until the last argument is made."

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