A federal judge ruled that the Salt Lake Board of Education did not discriminate when it set new boundaries, and, furthermore, may have prevented a federal lawsuit by doing so.
The judge dismissed the federal claims in a lawsuit over new Salt Lake school boundaries but wants state courts to decide whether the school board overstepped its state-given authority when it set them.In a 20-page memorandum, U.S. District Judge David K. Winder granted the motion from the defendant, the Salt Lake City School Board, and dismissed with prejudice all of the plaintiffs' claims that were based on federal law and the U.S. Constitution. Dismissal with prejudice means the suit cannot be refiled.
However, Winder remanded the lawsuit to 3rd District Court to decide the plaintiffs' claim that the school board had been "arbitrary and capricious," abusing the state-granted power that gives school boards the authority to make and enforce rules necessary to control and manage the schools.
The suit had originally been filed in 3rd District Court before it was moved to federal court.
The school board's attorney, John E.S. Robson, said Wednesday, "It's the decision that we anticipated."
Parker M. Nielson, attorney for the parents who filed the suit against the school board, called the decision "meaningless in a way." He said the suit doesn't fundamentally deal with the civil-rights claims but centers on the state issues that will be decided in 3rd District Court.
"All this really amounts to is more delay," Nielson said.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are five parents - Maria Espinal, Donnie James, G. Harvey Hamilton, Joyce Campbell and Terry Hoecherl - who say they represent thousands of affected parents and children in the Salt Lake School District.
The plaintiffs are upset with the board's "equity" plan. After closing South High School, the board developed the "equity" plan to redistribute the students among the remaining high schools. The plan set boundaries to achieve three equal high schools by using a balance of academic achievement, enrollment numbers, ethnic populations and academic offerings.
Nielson had asked Winder in a July 1 hearing to have the decision remanded to the school board so it could come up with a more appropriate plan.
The plaintiffs contended that the equity plan was an unconstitutional "partisan test," subjecting students to discrimination based on race for school attendance that included busing.
Winder disagreed, saying public officials are free to adopt voluntary plans that promote racial balance in the school.
"This court is of the opinion that voluntary integration, whether it is in the work place or in the schools, is permissible so long as factors other than race are considered. To hold otherwise and prohibit public officials from voluntarily integrating the schools would be contrary to the strong policies expressed in Brown vs. the Board of Education," the federal judge wrote.
In a landmark decision on May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Brown vs. The Board of Education of Topeka, unanimously banned racial segregation in the public schools.
Winder said the board's decision couldn't please everyone, but if it had increased the percentage of minority students in any one school, the board would have likely been defending itself against a segregation suit.
" . . . (B)y adopting a race-conscious plan, the district may have prevented a lawsuit which might very well have been successful," the federal judge wrote.
He added, "Given the long history and public debate involved in closing South High School and the rezoning of the district, it would be impossible for this court to say that the school board has ignored its responsibility to operate the school district in a nondiscriminatory manner."
The federal judge also disagreed with the plaintiffs' argument that a parent's right to direct his child's education takes priority over the state's right to create school attendance zones.