School & District Management

High Court Declines Challenge To Appointed Detroit Board

By Mark Walsh — March 05, 2003 3 min read

The U.S. Supreme Court last week turned away a challenge to a 1999 Michigan law that replaced the Detroit school system’s elected board with an appointed board.

The justices declined without comment Feb. 24 to hear the appeal of community activists who argued that the state takeover, due to last at least five years, violated the rights of Detroit residents to elect school board members of their choice.

Leaders of the Keep the Vote-No Takeover Coalition, which organized the challenge, now say the coalition will turn to the political process to restore an elected board for the 168,000-student Detroit district. Under the 1999 takeover law, Detroit voters can decide at the polls in November 2004 whether to retain the seven-member Detroit School Reform Board or return to an elected board.

Michigan lawmakers cited problems in academic achievement, governance, financial management, and other areas of the district’s operations when they passed the takeover law. Detroit’s mayor appoints six of the reform board’s members, and the state superintendent of public instruction serves as the seventh member.

Opponents challenged the reform board on the basis of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. The groups argued that while most white citizens of Michigan are able to elect their school boards, heavily black Detroit is singled out for an appointed board.

In a decision last year, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, ruled unanimously that the appointed board did not violate federal law.

“Citizens do not have a fundamental right to elect nonlegislative, administrative officers such as school board members,” the appellate court said.

The opponents’ appeal to the Supreme Court in Moore v. Detroit School Reform Board (Case No. 02-711) was accompanied by a friend-of-the-court brief invoking the name of civil rights pioneer Rosa L. Parks, who is now a Detroit resident. She “desires to campaign and vote for the candidates of her choice for Detroit school board,” the brief said.

In a brief opposing a review by the high court, the city of Detroit and the reform school board pointed out that five members of the board appointed by the mayor, as well as the school system’s chief executive officer, are African- American.

Other Action

The Supreme Court, returning from a four- week recess, also took the following actions last week:

  • The court declined to hear the appeal of a bus driver for special education students in Texas who sought to hold his school district liable for an incident in which a student sprayed him in the face with a fire extinguisher while he was driving.

David McKinney sued the 31,000-student Irving, Texas, district after the 1997 incident. He was able to bring the bus safely to a stop, but he suffered respiratory damage. His suit said that district administrators had denied his request for a monitor to keep an eye on unruly behavior on his bus.

In a decision last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, in New Orleans, rejected the driver’s lawsuit, ruling that school administrators did not act with “deliberate indifference.” Mr. McKinney faced “nothing more than the ordinary risks” of driving a school bus full of special education students, the appeals court said.

The justices refused without comment to hear the appeal in McKinney v. Irving Independent School District (No. 02-1075).

  • Justices likewise refused to hear the appeal of six Washington state districts that complained that the state reduces their educational funding in the precise amount the districts receive under a federal forest-aid program.

The 1,100-student Okanogan, Wash., school district, which led the legal challenge, has 70 percent of its land in the Okanogan National Forest. For the past 10 years, the economically distressed district has received about $100,000 per year in federal forest aid passed through the state. But the state government simply reduces its educational funding to the district by that amount, so the district receives no net benefit. The districts argued that the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution prohibits a state from using the aid that way.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, disagreed in a decision last year. The court ruled that the federal aid program gives states great discretion in how to spend the money.

The justices declined without comment to hear the districts’ appeal in Okanogan School District v. Bergeson (No. 02-531).

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