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Layoff Case Is Personal in N.J. School

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Piscataway, N.J.

In the 1997 yearbook of Piscataway High School, teacher Sharon Taxman poses with 34 students in the Future Business Leaders of America, a club she advised last year. There is only the barest hint of a smile on her face.

On the facing page is a description of the high school's first "Diversity Day," when students held workshops last November to promote "peace, harmony, and respect for all."

No matter where she turns, it seems, Ms. Taxman cannot escape questions of diversity. In 1989, the Piscataway Township school district cited its desire to maintain racial diversity on its faculty as the reason for laying off Ms. Taxman, who is white, instead of Debra Williams, the only black teacher in the New Jersey high school's business education department.

In its term that begins this week, the U.S. Supreme Court will consider whether the Piscataway district violated federal anti-discrimination law by relying on race in its 1989 layoff decision. The case presents a near-textbook scenario for the high court to rule on the boundaries of affirmative action in employment.

Legal Odyssey's Origins

As school officials here see it, Ms. Taxman and Ms. Williams had equal seniority and nearly equivalent qualifications. So when the school board had to eliminate one position in the business education department at the high school, it invoked its little-used affirmative action policy to keep the black teacher.

"The board of education has decided to rely on its commitment to affirmative action as a means of breaking the tie in seniority entitlement in the secretarial studies category," said a May 22, 1989, letter from school district Personnel Director Gordon H. Moore to Ms. Taxman. "Let me assure you once again, Sharon, that this board action is not related to any assessment of your professional performance."

But the decision hardly fostered the kind of harmony often cited as a goal for diversity and affirmative action programs. Instead, it has engendered bitterness between the two teachers and their employer and added to the continuing national debate about whether the time for race-conscious policies in employment, school admissions, and other areas is over.

Ms. Taxman challenged her layoff in a complaint to the federal government that led to her legal odyssey in the federal courts. The U.S. Department of Justice took her side under President Bush, but under President Clinton once sought to support the school board. The Clinton administration now says that the school board was wrong to base its layoff decision on race, but argues that federal law does not prohibit all consideration of race in public education. ("Justice Dept. Faults Board on Affirmative Action Case," Sept. 3, 1997.)

Both a federal district judge in Newark, N.J., and the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, based in Philadelphia, have ruled that the school district violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by basing its layoff decision on race. The Supreme Court is likely to hear arguments in Piscataway Township Board of Education v. Taxman (Case No. 96-679) in January.

Ms. Taxman, a 50-year-old native of the Buffalo, N.Y., area, is not giving any interviews about the case. Stephen E. Klausner, her lawyer and a longtime friend, said Ms. Taxman has turned down overtures from such TV news correspondents as Dan Rather, Diane Sawyer, and Barbara Walters.

"Sharon has not even discussed [the case] with her friends on the faculty," said Mr. Klausner, whose practice is based in the nearby town of Somerville, N.J.

Ms. Taxman was laid off throughout the 1989-90 school year. She was called back to work for the 1990-91 year when a teacher went on maternity leave, then sat out the 1991-92 year. She regained her job for good in 1992-93 and has been with the 6,400-student district ever since. At issue in the case is more than $144,000 in back pay and other damages.

Today, Ms. Taxman earns a base salary of $62,000 a year; Ms. Williams earns $64,000 a year.

School Tensions

Ms. Williams, meanwhile, was less than comforted by the inherent message in the board's layoff action--that she kept her job because she belongs to a minority group.

"It has outraged me," she said in a recent interview here. "I don't want the law books to go down saying they only kept Debbie Williams because she was black."

Ms. Williams, a 45-year-old native of Winona, Miss., rejects the suggestion, coming primarily from Ms. Taxman's lawyer, that she has no business speaking about a case that, in legal terms, is a dispute between the school district and Ms. Taxman.

The bitterness has been so sharp that the two teachers, who started working in the Piscataway district on the same day in 1980, are not on speaking terms, even though their classrooms in the high school's Susan B. Anthony Building are right next to each other.

Ms. Williams said that one of the few times that Ms. Taxman has spoken directly to her since the layoff decision was when Ms. Williams helped break up a student fight in Ms. Taxman's classroom last school year.

"The next day, she thanked me," Ms. Williams said. "I can't say why she doesn't talk to me [at other times]. It's a strained situation for both of us."

Mr. Klausner said that Ms. Taxman "has no personal animosity towards Williams whatsoever." But such conciliatory remarks are overshadowed by shades of hostility. "Williams is going to make believe she is the victim in this," Mr. Klausner said at another point. "Sharon doesn't discuss it. Williams is the only one who shoots her mouth off."

Second High Court Case

Piscataway High School consists of two buildings on a large campus in a suburban New Jersey community that is in the outer reaches of metropolitan New York.

Principal John J. Mac Fadyen led a brief tour of the building late last month, but only after teachers and students had left for the day. The school board, fearing disruption, has barred the news media from the school when the faculty and students are present. One student was even told he could not discuss the case for current events in a social studies class, according to Ms. Williams.

The principal led a visitor past Ms. Williams' and Ms. Taxman's adjoining classrooms, which have row upon row of new-looking computer workstations.

"We don't even have typewriters anymore," Mr. Mac Fadyen said. The business education department teaches such subjects as keyboarding, business math, and shorthand.

Piscataway High already has a place in legal history. A 1980 search of a student's purse turned up marijuana and led to a landmark 1985 ruling by the Supreme Court, in New Jersey v. T.L.O., that set the standard for school officials' searches of students.

Last year, of the school's 1,743 students in grades 9-12, 39.5 percent of the pupils were white, 30.3 percent were African-American, 22.5 percent were Asian/Pacific Islander, and 7.6 percent were Hispanic.

The school population is a reflection of the diversity of this municipality of 47,000 people. The community is about 65 percent white, 18 percent black, 14 percent Asian/Pacific Islander, and 6 percent Hispanic.

Piscataway Township was established in the late 1600s, but it lacks a traditional town center. The community was mostly rural until after World War II, when an interstate highway spurred development of residential areas and corporate offices.

A local newspaper, the Home News and Tribune, said several years ago that "even through the '50s, people had little sense of living in Piscataway. Many people trace a sense of unity and identification with the township to the building of the high school in 1957."

"It's suburban, but it's not privileged suburban," said Philip Geiger, who was the district's superintendent in the early 1990s. He is now president of the Minneapolis-based school management company Education Alternatives Inc., but he still lives in Piscataway.

It is home to many faculty members of Rutgers University and to executives for nearby corporate offices. But it also has working-class neighborhoods, Mr. Geiger said. "Some parts of town are poor, but it is a community with high aspirations for its kids," he said.

Affirmative Action Policy

In the 1970s, the Piscataway school board struggled with the desegregation of its elementary schools and middle schools, which led to busing of students for racial balance.

In 1975, meanwhile, the district adopted its first affirmative action policy, which called for recruiting minority applicants, but choosing the most qualified candidates.

When candidates appear to be of "equal qualification," the policy said, those "meeting the criteria of the affirmative action program will be recommended."

The district has never claimed it adopted the affirmative action policy as a response to any past discrimination against black or other minority job applicants.

Ms. Taxman's 1989 layoff came about after the district determined that, because of declining student interest in business education courses at the high school, one of the department's 10 positions would have to be eliminated, said Mr. Moore, the district personnel director, and David B. Rubin, the district's lawyer.

Laying off Ms. Williams would have left the department without any black teachers. Out of 176 teachers and administrators at the high school in 1989, a total of 14, or 8 percent, were black.

New Jersey's education laws have strict requirements about teacher layoffs.

Nontenured teachers must be laid off first, followed by tenured teachers in reverse order of seniority. Ms. Taxman and Ms. Williams had tenure, but were last in seniority in the business education department. Ms. Taxman would later unsuccessfully challenge the seniority determination.

Seniority Rules

With a tie on seniority, district officials looked at the teaching records of the two women to see whether one was better qualified than the other. This is the source of much of the friction between the two teachers that still persists. Ms. Taxman had joined the district with a more comprehensive teaching certificate than her black colleague had.

But Ms. Williams had a master's degree in education, while Ms. Taxman never completed hers.

After weighing the two teachers' credentials, personnel files, and records of attendance and extracurricular participation, "our best judgment was that they were, on balance, equal," said Mr. Moore, the personnel director.

Theodore Kruse, who was the president of the school board in 1989, recalled that board members usually went with the recommendation of the superintendent on personnel matters.

But the proposed layoff for the business education department was one they debated in depth before opting to keep Ms. Williams.

In past seniority ties, of which there had been several but never between black and white teachers, the employees drew lots or drew numbers out of a container.

"There was an awareness that it is desirable not just for black kids to see black teachers, but for white kids to see black teachers," said Mr. Kruse, a physics professor at Rutgers.

The board's legal arguments emphasize that it is valid for schools to seek a racially diverse faculty.

"For students to learn to compete in a multicultural society, that is best accomplished with a diverse student body and faculty," Mr. Rubin, the district's lawyer, said.

But Mr. Klausner, Ms. Taxman's lawyer, argues that when race is used as the key factor in a layoff, "it is pure and simple race discrimination."

The impact has a pernicious effect on the targeted employee, he said. "Termination, unlike hiring or promotion, zeroes in like a laser beam on an individual," Mr. Klausner said.

Or sometimes, as in Piscataway, on two individuals.

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