The decades-old desegregation case in Yonkers, N.Y., could end this year if a federal court approves a settlement that would pump an additional $300 million in state money into the struggling school district.
“This agreement will give the local schools back to the children, parents, and teachers of Yonkers,” Gov. George E. Pataki of New York said at a Jan. 8 news conference announcing the pact. “Now, we can focus all of our energy and resources on providing the finest education possible for the children of Yonkers.”
But the accord reached last week by state officials, the local school board, the city, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People does not mean the parties agree about the lingering effects of racial segregation on the 26,400-student district.
Joseph M. Pastore Jr., the court-appointed monitor who helped mediate the agreement, said that the plaintiffs—the NAACP and the federal government—believe that vestiges of 40 years of segregation continue to negatively affect Yonkers’ students. The city, the school board, and the state, however, contend that there is no relationship between poor student performance and segregation.
U.S. District Judge Leonard B. Sand, who in 1985 found that the city and the district were responsible for racially segregating the schools, still must sign off on the five-year agreement, which would return control of the district to the local school board members, who are appointed by the mayor.
The deal calls for the state to give the district $70 million this year and $230 million over the next four years, money that must be used to introduce and maintain programs to improve the academic performance of all students. Those efforts include magnet programs, smaller class sizes, and full- day kindergarten. About 75 percent of Yonkers’ students are African-American, Hispanic, or Asian.
A newly appointed compliance officer would monitor the agreement. The naming of a compliance officer, who could not be fired by the district, was key to gaining the NAACP’s support for the plan, said Leonard Buddington, the president of Yonkers’ NAACP chapter.
The agreement was set to be submitted to the court this week. Judge Sand is expected to rule on the case within the next month.
For Yonkers, the settlement concludes a contentious legal battle that began in 1980 and included charges that the city encouraged segregated housing. The school agreement does not affect pending housing litigation.
After years of wrangling, why was an agreement reached now?
In 1999, a federal appeals court ruled that the district’s racial disparities in student achievement were not solely the result of segregation, signaling a significant shift in the balance of legal power and giving the state and the city their first significant victory.
A year later, Mr. Pastore said, Gov. Pataki, a Republican, gave the district $10 million in “good-faith money” to spark settlement discussions.
In addition, the district was facing the fallout of a struggling economy in 2001 and the resulting crimp in state education spending, Mr. Pastore said. Restoring financial stability to the district was paramount to closing the deal.
But Mr. Pastore and Mr. Buddington cautioned that money alone would not resolve the dispute. The plaintiffs wanted to guarantee that programs remained in place to address racial and ethnic academic disparities.
If Judge Sand approves the deal, the district, the city, and New York state will not be obligated to continue any programs past 2006, when the agreement would expire. Mr. Pastore said that the district and the city would have to examine ways to cut costs and find additional money to keep the programs running.
Mr. Buddington said he was relying on the programs’ success to influence both city and state officials to continue to allocate the money to sustain them. Still, he said, it would be up to local residents to serve as watchdogs and pressure officials to continue those programs.
“This is our opportunity over the next five years to deal with institutional racism and deal with institutional reform,” he said.
A version of this article appeared in the January 16, 2002 edition of Education Week as Yonkers Desegregation Suit May Be Nearing End