Lawsuits Oppose Mayor's Role in Cleveland Schools

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The Cleveland teachers' union and a local chapter of the NAACP made good on their vows to challenge a mayoral takeover of the city's public schools by filing lawsuits last week.

The nearly identical suits, which were filed Sept. 8 in federal district court, say the newly enacted state law allowing Mayor Michael R. White to appoint a new school board and chief executive officer is unconstitutional. ("Mayor To Get School Control in Cleveland," July 9, 1997.

The law signed by Gov. George V. Voinovich last month violates the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, said James A. Ciocia, the lawyer representing the 5,000-member union.

"Most of our claims relate to the community being deprived of their right to vote for a school board," Mr. Ciocia said. The law also violates the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 because it disenfranchises the city's predominantly African-American population, the suits claim.

"HB 269 is a law that purposely and systematically is utilized to exclude African-Americans, including the African-American plaintiffs, from the opportunity to participate in the educational policymaking process," lawyers for both groups claim in the lawsuits.

Education, Not Race

Tom Needles, the executive assistant to Gov. Voinovich, a Republican, insisted the state law is within constitutional guidelines. He noted that it allows Cleveland residents to vote on whether to keep or discard the appointed leadership after four years.

Mr. Needles strongly denied the claims of racial bias. "We have never viewed this as a racial issue," he said.

The 76,000-student system came under state control in 1995, when the federal judge overseeing its desegregation plan declared the schools to be in a "state of crisis." ("'Crisis' Spurs State Takeover of Cleveland," March 15, 1995.

Mr. White cannot take official control of the district from the state until receiving approval from the federal court.

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