A judge has ordered Georgia to pay one of its biggest school districts $110 million for using a flawed calculation that greatly reduced the amount the state was obligated to pay for busing costs over the past 23 years.
Georgia stretched the interpretation of a state law too far when it concluded in 1978 that it did not need to count students in the DeKalb County district’s magnet school program and those in a voluntary-integration program when it calculated transportation costs to be paid to the district, Judge Bensonetta Tipton Lane of Fulton County Superior Court said in a Sept. 17 order. That approach meant the state did not have to pay a portion of the district’s costs for those students’ transportation.
The state education department again misinterpreted the law, the judge said, when it decided in 1987 that it would count DeKalb’s magnet school and voluntary-transfer students as if they attended their neighborhood schools. That method obliged the state to pay a portion of the district’s costs to take such students to their neighborhood schools, even though they actually attended schools farther away.
State officials had argued that the law allowed Georgia to calculate transportation costs based on the schools “to which [students] are assigned,” meaning the neighborhood schools. But in awarding the district the overdue payments and interest, Judge Lane said case law requires the state to use “ordinary and everyday meanings” of words “without resorting to subtle or forced constructions.”
More Aid for Districts?
The state attorney general’s office said it would appeal the decision. The judgment amount represents 62 percent of this year’s total state school transportation budget of $167.5 million.
Sam McCullough, the director of transportation for the Georgia Department of Education, said he doesn’t know how the state will pay for student transportation if the court ruling stands. “The legislature is going to have to do something different, or it will have to come from someplace else [in the budget],” he said.
In the absence of a reversal by a higher court, the ruling in the DeKalb County schools’ favor appears to promise more state aid for other Georgia districts. Fulton County, for instance, buses 1,350 of its 71,000 students outside their neighborhoods. About 450 attend its four magnet programs, and 900 participate in a “majority- to-minority” transfer program, which enables minority students to attend majority-white schools. Cobb County and the city of Atlanta have similar programs.
The “M-to-M” program and the magnet school program, which originated as court-ordered remedies to segregation, were at the center of the dispute in DeKalb County, a district with 96,000 students just east of Atlanta.
As late as 1999, about 6,500 students were transported under such programs, DeKalb transportation director Dannie L. Reed said. But since the majority-to-minority program is being phased out as too race-conscious, only about 4,500 students are now transported as part of the magnet and M-to-M programs.
The district first sued for those transportation costs in federal court, and won in 1994. A federal appeals court overturned that decision, though, saying the matter should be tried in state court.
Alfred A. Lindseth, a lawyer who represents the district in the suit, said the way past state officials calculated transportation costs “was clearly rooted in efforts of the state in the ‘60s and early ‘70s to maintain a segregated [school] system.”
Districts such as DeKalb, which must transport large numbers of students out of their home school zones, are disproportionately hurt by such calculations, he argued.