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N.Y. State Held Liable for Vestiges Of Segregation in Yonkers Schools

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New York state officials hindered efforts to integrate the Yonkers public schools during the 1960s and '70s and must pay to help eliminate disparities between whites and minority students in the district, a federal appeals court ruled last week.

Yonkers school officials estimated at the time the district and the NAACP sued the state in 1987 that it would cost $500 million to close the gap between white students and Hispanics and blacks.

The ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit held the state financially liable for remedying the inequities, but remanded the case to a lower court to affix the dollar amount and work out other details.

Legal experts said the judgment means that states can be held accountable if they knowingly permitted municipalities to continue race-based segregation.

In this case, the appeals court went further and found that during the '60s and '70s, state education officials and the legislature actively encouraged segregation in Yonkers via a series of actions at the state level.

The court noted, for example, that in 1976 the legislature pressured the state board of regents to fire then-Commissioner of Education Ewald Nyquist chiefly because of his strong commitment to desegregation.

The lawmakers also curtailed a state fund that districts used to help integrate schools and used busing as a litmus test for confirming regents, according to the 55-page opinion.

Improvement Plan Pending

The Yonkers case began in 1980, when the federal government and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People sued the city and its school board.

In 1986, a federal district court ordered the city to integrate, and in 1987 it allowed the Yonkers district and the NAACP to sue the state for help in paying for the remedies.

In a ruling last year, U.S. District Judge Leonard B. Sand had determined "with reluctance" that the state could not be held responsible because it had not actively engaged in maintaining segregation. ("N.Y. Not Liable for Desegregation Costs in Yonkers," April 5, 1995.)

In last week's ruling, the appeals court agreed with Judge Sand's factual findings, but overturned his decision.

Local officials said that while that lawsuit was pending, they desegregated the schools as best they could, but a lack of money hindered their efforts to wipe out the remnants of discrimination.

The current racial makeup of the 24,000-student district is 40 percent Hispanic, 30 percent black, and 30 percent white.

Superintendent Reginald F. Marra said last week that the district has designed a plan that includes upgrading the curriculum, investing in staff development, adding service staff, increasing parent participation, repairing and renovating school facilities, reducing class sizes, and updating technology--both in the classroom and in district offices.

Mr. Marra's reaction to the long-awaited decision was bittersweet. "This is a wonderful opportunity for the children and the city of Yonkers," he said. "We are elated for them."

Yet, he added, "I feel so bad for the children who were in our school system and graduated over the last nine or 10 years. But I'm very optimistic about the future."

State education officials referred all inquiries to the state attorney general's office, where officials said last week that no decision had been made about an appeal.

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