Citing a “constitutional imperative to prevent segregation in our public schools,” the state Supreme Court ruled yesterday that a school district may not withdraw from a regional high school if it would hasten racial imbalance.
Chief Justice Deborah Poritz said that in spite of the state’s long-standing rejection of segregated schools, far too many minority students attend schools with few, if any, white classmates. She noted in the unanimous decision that a study earlier this year by the Civil Rights Project of Harvard University ranked New Jersey’s schools the fifth most-segregated in the nation.
“As a state, we are losing ground,” Poritz wrote. “We have paid lip service to the idea of diversity in our schools, but in the real world we have not succeeded.”
The ruling rejected an effort by the mostly white North Haledon school district to lower its property taxes by pulling its students out of the Manchester Regional High School in Passaic County and sending them to an “overwhelmingly white” high school in Midland Park, at a savings of $10,000 per pupil.
In her ruling, Poritz said concerns about racial diversity trump worries about high property taxes.
“Students attending racially imbalanced schools are denied the benefits that come from learning and associating with students from different backgrounds, races and cultures,” Poritz wrote. “We find that, in this case, withdrawal by North Haledon will deny the benefits of the educational opportunity offered by a diverse student body to both the students remaining at Manchester Regional and to the students from North Haledon.”
Currently, 159 of New Jersey’s more than 600 school districts serve students from more than one town. While no schools are petitioning to pull out of these arrangements, the ruling would affect any future requests.
“Going forward, any petition to withdraw from a regional will be reviewed very heavily to its impact on racial balance,” said Frank Belluscio, spokesman for the New Jersey State School Boards Association. “The courts are going to be very strict.”
Lawyers in the case said the court simply applied well-established legal principles rejecting school segregation and broke no new ground on racial diversity.
But several legal scholars said the court seemed to be voicing a growing frustration with New Jersey’s inability to end school segregation. Poritz noted that New Jersey had outlawed legally segregated schools long before the U.S. Supreme Court declared them unconstitutional 50 years ago in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan.
“It certainly suggests they’re not content just to mouth constitutional platitudes and let segregation continue,” said Paul Tractenberg, a professor at Rutgers School of Law in Newark.
Frank Askin, founder of the law school’s constitutional litigation clinic, said the ruling “shows the court’s frustration that despite its historic commitment to school integration, it hasn’t occurred.” He said the court might be signaling that it would be sympathetic to lawsuits seeking more aggressive remedies, such as regionalization to achieve racial balance.
Lawyers for the districts involved all found something to like in the ruling.
Vito Gagliardi Jr., who argued the case for North Haledon, was pleased the court found it was a desire to cut property taxes, and not “white flight,” that prompted its bid to pull out of the regional high school.
He was even happier that the court instructed state Education Commissioner William Librera to come up with a fairer way of dividing the regional high school’s costs among the three towns that send students. The decision said North Haledon pays $18,400 per pupil, compared to per-pupil costs of $5,300 for Haledon and $3,400 for Prospect Park. The current formula is based on each town’s property values.
“This is a tremendous result,” Gagliardi said. “It gives the commissioner of education both the right and the obligation to fix the funding formula that has disproportionately burdened North Haledon for decades.”
Stephen Fogarty, a lawyer for the Manchester Regional High School, said, “We’re very pleased with the outcome.” The high school, located in Haledon, opened in 1960.
The justices agreed with the high school’s arguments that North Haledon should be required to continue sending students to the regional high school to slow its transformation from mostly white to mostly Hispanic. Poritz said if North Haledon were allowed to pull out, the white population of Manchester Regional High School would fall from 51 percent to 38 percent by 2005.
“For us, it has been about the quality of the education,” Fogarty said.
Allan Dzwilewski, who argued for keeping North Haledon in the regional district on behalf of Haledon and Prospect Park, called the decision “a little bit of an extension” of existing rules that prevent withdrawal from a multidistrict arrangement if racial imbalance will result.
David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, called the ruling “an important signal that it’s time” for state leaders to address “the intense segregation in our public schools along race and socio-economic lines.”