State Seeks End to Desegregation Rule to Save Costs

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Facing a bill for past desegregation programs that already approaches $500 million, a State Board of Education committee Thursday moved to forestall future costs by recommending the repeal of the desegregation regulations that created the difficulty.

The regulations must be repealed, lawyers for the state Department of Education said, in order to keep the state from having to pay the entire cost of voluntary desegregation programs.

An appeals court has ruled that the regulations are, in effect, a mandate, and as such make the state liable for the full costs of past desegregation efforts.

The court made its ruling in a lawsuit filed by the Long Beach Unified School District, which the court said is entitled to an estimated $43 million for its past desegregation costs.

State officials said Thursday that if all school districts in the state with voluntary desegregation programs pressed claims for their past costs, the tab could approach a $500 million.

If the full board approves the committee action today, the state would be off the hook for millions of dollars in future costs--but the past costs must be paid, state officials acknowledged.

School districts would still be blocked by state and federal law from maintaining segregated schools. But if the state regulations were repealed, California would no longer be in the business of telling school districts how to desegregate.

Critics of the move to repeal the regulations say it would send a signal that the state is backing away from its commitment to integration.

"The state board has an obligation not just to stand with this ideal (of desegregation) but to provide the money," Los Angeles civil rights lawyer Constance L. Rice said.

The issue stems from a 1986 court battle in which the Long Beach Unified School District sought reimbursement for 100% of its desegregation costs dating back to 1977, when the State Board of Education adopted its desegregation regulations.

Since the mid-1980s, the Legislature has reimbursed school districts for 80% of their desegregation expenses.

However, Long Beach claimed--first in Los Angeles Superior Court and then in the 2nd District Court of Appeal--that it was due 100% funding, based on its view that the program was mandated.

The state had argued that the regulations were merely guidelines designed to help school districts implement existing state and federal laws.

Long Beach won and the state has chosen not to appeal the matter further, making it liable for 100% of the past costs in the 42 school districts in the state with voluntary desegregation programs. (The ruling does not affect the state's 12 court-ordered desegregation programs, which are funded under a different formula.)

If other school districts with voluntary programs file similar claims, the cost to the state "could reach half a billion dollars," state Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig said in an interview. A state auditor has said the costs could go as high as $550 million.

"Clearly, the state cannot take a $500 million hit now," state Controller Gray Davis said.

Honig and Department of Education lawyers stressed that repealing the regulations does not mean the end of voluntary desegregation.

Joseph Symkowick, department general counsel, said the state will continue to reimburse districts for 80% of the cost of desegregation efforts. However, the Legislature is under no obligation to continue funding at the 80% level, other state officials have noted.

Symkowick also noted that one reason districts have adopted voluntary programs--magnet schools, voluntary busing and special training for teachers, among others--is to avoid having the courts impose mandatory plans. That motivation would not change if the state regulations were dropped, he noted.

However, civil rights attorneys accused the state of saving money by bartering away the rights of minority students.

Bill Lann Lee, an attorney for the Los Angeles office of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, called the repeal "a shirking of responsibility."

Long Beach Assistant Supt. Ron Bennett said the loss of the state mandate would set the stage for chipping away at what's left of desegregation funding.

Meanwhile, state officials have begun trying to find a solution to what ultimately may be a $500 million problem.

One possibility might be to stretch out the payments, Honig said. Long Beach officials already have indicated willingness to take the money over a five-year period.

Trombley reported from Sacramento and Blume reported from Los Angeles.

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