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Published in Print: March 26, 2003, as Cincinnati Schools Sue To Keep Homes In City District

Cincinnati Schools Sue To Keep Homes In City District

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The Cincinnati public schools are asking a federal court to halt the transfer of four homes from the predominantly black district into a neighboring white suburban school system.

Shifting the homes into the Madeira school district would increase racial isolation in the Cincinnati schools, the 40,000-student district contends in a lawsuit filed against the state on March 11 in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati.

The lawsuit cites the district's desegregation case, Bronson v.Cincinnati Board of Education, which according to the new suit "recognized the importance of racial balance and the need to reduce racial isolation when possible."

As a result, the property transfers, which would further decrease the number of white students in Cincinnati's schools, would put the district and its school board in the position of violating the equal-protection clause of the U.S. Constitution, the suit maintains.

Enrollment figures show 71 percent of Cincinnati's students are African-American, 24 percent are white, and the remaining 5 percent are multiracial, Hispanic, Asian, or Native American. In contrast, roughly 8 percent of Madeira's 1,500 students are black, Hispanic, Asian, or multiracial.

Although the suit also notes the loss of tax revenue to the district, Cincinnati is primarily concerned with ending the continued drain of white students from its roster, said C. Scott Romans, the school system's lawyer.

The defendants in the lawsuit are the Ohio Department of Education, the state superintendent of public instruction, and the state board of education.

New Legal Strategy

The Cincinnati district decided to embark on a new legal strategy after battling the transfer of homes from the city district into neighboring, predominantly white suburban ones for roughly a decade—and losing in administrative hearings and state courts, Mr. Romans said.

Mr. Romans said he is modeling his new strategy after a successful property-transfer case in Akron that sought relief from the federal court using a similar argument in the 1970s.

Most district boundary disputes are resolved through administrative hearings or the state courts. The new case, which involves four houses on one street, had not yet reached the administrative- hearing stage.

Kim Norris, a spokeswoman for the Ohio attorney general's office, said it is uncommon for a school district property transfer to reach the federal courts. The attorney general's office believes that the administrative process should have a chance to move forward before court intervention is sought, she said.

This isn't the first time Cincinnati has tried to stop the transfer of homes to the Madeira schools, northeast of the city. In the late 1990s, a neighborhood of four streets was shifted into Madeira's school zone following a lengthy legal battle.

Michele Hummel, Madeira's superintendent, explained that in that case, the neighborhood was isolated from the Cincinnati schools. A Madeira school bus would drive past those homes to pick students up who were zoned for the suburban district's schools, she said.

While her district has always taken a "neutral stance" in such cases, Ms. Hummel said, every district must fight any effort to siphon off tax revenues by changing school system boundaries. Madeira has gained very few students from any property-transfer cases, she added.

For the families who initiated the transfers, she said, the focus should not be about increasing their property values, but on what is best for the quality of life and education for the students involved.

Richard Bartchy, one of the residents seeking the property transfer, noted that he lives in the city of Madeira and pays taxes there.

"We're not doing this for racial reasons," he told The Cincinnati Enquirer earlier this month.

Moving his house on Windridge Drive into the Madeira school district would boost the resale value of his home, he said, because it would be in the same school district as the majority of houses in his subdivision.

But Mr. Romans, Cincinnati's lawyer, said the federal lawsuit isn't solely about the four houses or Madeira. District boundaries must begin and end at some point without constantly being moved, he argued, and Cincinnati is looking to the federal courts to head off all future transfers of homes out of the city district.

Vol. 22, Issue 28, Page 5

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