N.J. School Board Can Merge Districts, Court Rules

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The New Jersey Board of Education has the power to combine school districts if necessary to eliminate de facto racial segregation, a state appeals court has ruled.

The decision cleared the way for the state education department to study how it could combine the districts of Englewood, Englewood Cliffs, and Tenafly.

Responding to the decision, state lawmakers proposed a constitutional amendment that would bar the state's executive and judicial branches from forcing the "regionalization'' of separate school districts. But the legislature was expected this week to defer action on the proposal. (See story, page 30.)

Developments in at least two federal suits elsewhere in the country, meanwhile, suggested that school districts may have more difficulty than some experts had predicted in using a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling to get out from under court supervision in desegregation cases.

Violates N.J. Constitution

The three districts involved in the New Jersey case are adjacent to each other in the northern part of the state. Englewood Cliffs and Tenafly, which are overwhelmingly white or Asian-American, have long opposed the idea of consolidating with predominantly black and Latino Englewood. (See Education Week, Jan. 8, 1992.)

A three-judge panel of the appellate division of New Jersey superior court declared in June that de facto segregation within or across district lines violates the state constitution. The judges said the state board and commissioner of education have both the power and the obligation to eliminate such segregation.

The ruling did not take up the merits of regionalization, but it held that the state board has the authority to combine unrelated districts and to take race into consideration when doing so.

Although the ruling directly applied only to the three districts, Steven Eisdorfer, the state's assistant deputy public advocate, said the principles laid down in the case could have an effect throughout the state.

The decision upheld a 1988 ruling by an administrative-law judge that barred the Englewood Cliffs district, which has no high school, from breaking a 1967 agreement to send its high-school students to Dwight Morrow High School in Englewood.

Applying 'Freeman'

At the federal level, judges have begun to apply the Supreme Court's March 31 decision in Freeman v. Pitts. The Court held in that case that judges may, in releasing districts from court oversight, consider separately the various elements of the district's operation that needed to be desegregated. It warned, however, that some elements of operation may be related in terms of segregative effects. (See Education Week, April 8, 1992.)

The Court also held that districts need not remedy racial imbalances caused by demographic shifts and other factors not under their control.

The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana, citing Freeman, last month allowed the Monroe (La.) City School Board to partially withdraw from a desegregation order. It declared the district integrated in facilities, hiring procedures, and extracurricular activities.

But the court ordered the district to further integrate its faculty and students and said the district must continue court-ordered busing because transportation and student assignment are closely related.

The court rejected the school board's claims that racial imbalances in the schools were due to demographic changes beyond the district's control. The court cited documents showing that 15 white students had been allowed to transfer out of predominantly black schools when a doctor certified they were "psychologically harmed'' by attending such schools.

Informed of such administrative policies, the U.S. Justice Department surprised some observers by opposing the complete end of court oversight in the Monroe case.

The department also appeared this summer to take a hard line on a request by the state of Missouri that the St. Louis schools be declared partially unitary, or free of the vestiges of segregation. The department argued that the state had not demonstrated full compliance with desegregation orders and had not clearly shown the probable effects of a partial declaration of unitary status.

Although the demonstration of unitary status in one area of operation may be enough to eliminate judicial supervision of that area, it does not mean that the court needs to relinquish its jurisdiction over that area, the department argued in a brief filed in the case.

San Francisco PlanIn other desegregation-related action this summer:

  • A court-appointed team of experts in San Francisco proposed replacing the city's decade-old desegregation plan with a new plan that, among other features, calls for principals and teachers to be transferred from schools that fail over time to improve the achievement of black and Hispanic students.

The plan, submitted to U.S. District Judge William Orrick, also calls for the district to establish better educational programs and to allow minority students in consistently weak schools to transfer.

  • The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled that the Talladega County, Ala., school board did not create a binding legal obligation for itself when it resolved to remain integrated in the text of a court order releasing it from court supervision.
  • The 11th Circuit Court, in a case involving the Pinellas County, Fla., schools, held that a judge must hear the claims of outside parties seeking to intervene in a desegregation suit before relinquishing jurisdiction.
  • In a case linking housing and school segregation in Yonkers, N.Y., U.S. District Judge Leonard Sand denied the state's request to dismiss a suit filed against it by the school board seeking reimbursement for some desegregation costs. Instead, he ordered a trial to determine whether there remain any vestiges of segregation in district schools. The judge last month also gave the city four months to try to implement a housing-integration plan that seeks to locate subsidized housing in existing apartments and condominiums.
  • The Cleveland school board approved a plan to allow about 1,200 pupils, or 6 percent of those now bused out of their neighborhoods, to attend neighborhood elementary schools beginning this fall.
  • The Providence, R.I., school board last month was seeking public input on a plan to update its 25-year-old desegregation plan to allow for "controlled choice'' of schools.
  • In Arkansas, a U.S. district judge approved a desegregation settlement involving seven school districts in Garland County. It allows students to attend school in districts other than their own.

Vol. 11, Issue 40, Page 10

Published in Print: August 5, 1992, as N.J. School Board Can Merge Districts, Court Rules
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