Districts Keep Watchful Eye on New Court Term
The U.S. Supreme Court opens its new term this week prepared to take on cases dealing with voting rights, employment discrimination, and drug testing of public officials.
While those issues are of interest to school districts because most are large public employers and their boards are elected, other cases focusing on schools are waiting in the wings. The justices will decide sometime this fall whether to hear appeals of disputes involving student-led prayers, sexual harassment in schools, mandatory community service, and special education.
This week, the high court takes up a case that has independent boarding schools and other private schools worried.
In a dispute from Maine, the court must decide whether states may limit the tax exemptions they grant to nonprofit institutions when a school, camp, or other charitable organization primarily serves out-of-state residents.
If Maine's tax scheme is upheld in Camps Newfound/Owatonna Inc. v. Town of Harrison (Case No. 94-1988), nonprofit groups fear that other states will follow.
The result could be a loss in tax exemptions for certain private schools or policy changes by the schools to limit the number of out-of-state students they will accept.
Meanwhile, the court for now has just one case on its docket in which a school board is directly involved.
In a voting-rights case from Louisiana, the justices are likely to reopen their struggle over specially carved voting districts for minority groups.
In Reno v. Bossier Parish School Board (No. 95-1455), the emphasis shifts from congressional districts to school board elections. The court must decide whether the Voting Rights Act of 1965 requires a school board that until recently had never elected an African-American member to draw two electoral districts in which black voters would make up a majority.
The case is likely to be heard in December.
Ga. Drug Testing
Just last week, the court added to its docket a challenge to a Georgia law that requires candidates for most statewide offices, including the state schools superintendent, to submit to drug testing.
The Georgia legislature adopted the law in 1990, the same year it passed a broader measure that required all applicants for public teaching jobs to submit to drug testing.
A federal judge struck down the law requiring drug testing of teacher candidates. But a separate federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit upheld the measure affecting top Georgia officeholders against a challenge filed by several Libertarian Party candidates.
In accepting the appeal in Chandler v. Miller (No. 96-126), the Supreme Court has indicated it is not finished with the question of who should be subjected to drug testing by the government. Depending on how the court rules in the new case, school districts might seek to expand drug-testing programs to teachers, administrators, or school board members.
The case will likely be heard in January.
In another potentially divisive case, the high court may decide the constitutionality of an Arizona law that requires the use of English in most official government business.
The measure, passed by ballot initiative in 1988 but ot yet enforced, apparently would not affect foreign-language instruction in schools or bilingual education. However, it might prohibit school districts from publishing parents' handbooks in Spanish, for example.
In striking down the measure last year by a 6-5 vote, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit said it "significantly interferes with the ability of the non-English-speaking populace of Arizona to receive information and ideas."
Before reaching the merits of the law at issue in Arizonans for Official English v. Arizona (No. 95-974), the Supreme Court must first decide whether a private group has legal standing to defend the measure. The state stopped defending the measure after it lost in a federal district court.
In addition to the cases it has already agreed to hear, the high court has before it appeals affecting a number of contentious education issues.
The court is being asked to decide, for example, whether districts can be held liable for student-to-student sexual harassment.
Another major case still up for review involves a challenge to Mississippi's law that permits student-initiated prayers at school events. The law was struck down in January by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit. ("Court Rejects Miss. Law Authorizing Student-Led Prayer," Jan. 17, 1996.)
In the Maine nonprofit-tax case, the Supreme Court will examine a legal dispute that began as a request by a small children's camp for an exemption from local property taxes.
Now, numerous groups representing nonprofit schools and charities argue that if the Supreme Court upholds Maine's tax arrangement, they face potentially devastating financial consequences if other states follow Maine's lead.
"Our schools really rely on property tax exemptions," said Jeff Burnett, the director of government relations for the Washington-based National Association of Independent Schools, which represents many of the nation's top boarding schools.
To preserve a property tax exemption, boarding schools or private day schools that serve students from more than one state might limit the number of out-of-state students they accept, Mr. Burnett said.
The case involves a Christian Science summer camp in Harrison, Maine, in which 95 percent of the children come from outside the state.
Maine, like most states, provides certain tax exemptions for nonprofit organizations that benefit the public good.
But the state denies real estate tax exemptions to charitable groups that operate primarily for the benefit of out-of-state residents. Thus, the camp pays the town about $22,000 a year in real estate taxes.
In 1992, it sought a refund for several years worth of taxes and an exemption for future years. The town refused, and the camp sued.
The town of Harrison, which is defending the state's tax system, argues that because the exemption applies to real estate taxes, which are an intrastate matter, the U.S. Constitution's commerce clause is not violated.
Some legal experts have questioned whether other states would really rush to treat nonprofits the same way Maine does, since Maine's law has been on its books since the 1950s.