Judge Ends Desegregation Case in Cleveland

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A federal judge has declared that Cleveland has fulfilled its legal obligations to desegregate its schools, a ruling that helps set the stage for shifting control of the long-troubled district from the state to the city's mayor.

U.S. District Chief Judge George W. White concluded that it is time to put an end to the quarter-century-old court battle over integrating the 76,500-student district, saying that "the purposes of this desegregation litigation have been fully achieved."

"I think it was a historic day here in Cleveland," said James W. Penning, the state-appointed interim superintendent, referring to Judge White's March 27 ruling in the case known as Reed v. Rhodes.

In declaring the system "unitary," the judge found that the state and district had done all that could be expected to remedy the harm created by past segregation. The persistent gap in student performance between black and white students, he found, "is the result of socioeconomic status and factors directly related to it, not race."

But the judge left open the question of how much longer state education officials will keep day-to-day control of the district. He said he would hold a hearing soon to consider lifting the 1995 order in the desegregation case that declared the district in crisis and stripped the elected school board of authority.

Under a state law enacted last summer, Mayor Michael R. White is to appoint a new school board and schools chief to run the district once that takeover order is lifted. Legal challenges to that law, however, are pending.

Plaintiffs Weigh Appeal

James L. Hardiman, the lawyer representing the African-American schoolchildren who filed the desegregation lawsuit in 1973, said last week that he was considering an appeal to the March 27 decision. Meanwhile, his clients' challenge to a 1996 ruling that ended forced busing in the district is before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit.

In that 1996 ruling, a judge who previously presided over the case lifted court oversight only in the area of student assignment, freeing the district from having to keep its schools racially balanced through busing and other measures. Black students make up 70 percent of district enrollment, and officials had previously been required to approximate that proportion in every school.

Judge White's latest ruling extends to more than a dozen areas that were also covered by earlier court orders, ranging from curriculum and testing to faculty assignments and security.

The judge made clear, however, that the state and district must follow through with program and funding commitments they made in a 1994 agreement with the plaintiffs. Those obligations, which include about $40 million a year in extra state funding, are slated to continue until 2000.

In part because of those obligations, some people involved in the case said last week that the declaration of unitary status would have limited immediate effect.

"A lot of what we've done has been to improve the educational system, and we're certainly not going to dismantle that now that we've been declared unitary," Mr. Penning said.

Nonetheless, district leaders said the ruling would free them from burdensome compliance requirements. Judge White said in his ruling that Cleveland was saddled with "approximately two to three times more remedial obligations than any other school districts subject to a desegregation order."

Governance Law Upheld

Judge White's ruling follows his March 6 decision upholding the state law that would shift control of the district to the mayor. The law had been challenged by the Cleveland Teachers Union, another union representing district support workers, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Late last week, Local 47 of the Service Employees International Union appealed Judge White's ruling in that case to the federal circuit court. ("Lawsuits Oppose Mayor's Role In Cleveland Schools," Sept. 17, 1998.)

A separate challenge to the law by a group of community activists is also pending in state court.

The teachers' union, on the other hand, is unlikely to appeal, both because its members have become less hostile to the idea of a school board controlled by Mayor White and because they are eager for an end to state oversight, the union's president said.

"We have too many masters at this time," said Richard A. DeColibus, the president of the 5,000-member union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. "We have to get some kind of resolution to the governance question."

In his latest desegregation ruling, Judge White suggested that he was disinclined to resolve that question by returning the district to the elected board. "The district can no longer be governed by an irresponsible school board that does not operate with the best interest of the children in mind," he wrote.

Instead, he called for communitywide efforts to combat dismal achievement. "The battle cannot be won by assigning blame for the weaknesses in the system or pursuing individual agendas," he said. The answer lies in "honestly assessing the weaknesses while working collectively and constructively to strengthen the system.'

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