Justice Dept. Investigates Takeover of Calif. District

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Officials at the U.S. Department of Justice confirmed last week that they are reviewing whether California violated the federal voting-rights law when it took over the troubled Compton district in 1993.

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The department is responding to a complaint alleging that the state limited the voting rights of the city's racial minorities by reducing Compton's elected school board to an advisory capacity.

Federal lawyers also are exploring whether California failed to properly advise the department of the potential effects on the voting rights of minorities when the state intervened in a handful of other districts.

A few California counties, along with most Southern states, are required by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to get Justice Department approval before doing anything that would affect minority voting rights.

The department has questioned takeovers of districts in other states on similar grounds. ("State Takeovers Run Afoul of Voting Rights Act," Sept. 11, 1996.)

A high-ranking department official said the agency does not comment on the details of reviews that are under way, and he cautioned against jumping to conclusions about the Compton complaint.

At least one school board member in Compton was elated by the news of the federal review.

Board Chief Pleased

"I have nothing but praise for the Justice Department," said Saul E. Lankster, the president of the embattled board. "I'm glad for the community's voters, whose rights have been trampled over for four years."

Mr. Lankster alleged in a letter to President Clinton last fall that the state takeover of his district violated federal voting laws.

Compton, which has 28,000 students in grades K-12, was taken over after the legislature loaned it $20 million to pay its bills. It is California's only state-run district. The Compton board recently lost a court bid to regain control by failing to establish that the district has made enough progress to rescind the takeover.

The California Department of Education's top lawyer said the state is on firm ground.

The takeover is not about voting rights, said Joseph R. Symkowick, the department's general counsel. Instead, it is an issue of state sovereignty and the right to authorize and disband local government bodies.

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