Judge rules Lower Merion redistricting broke no law

Posted: June 25, 2010

A federal court judge in Philadelphia ruled Thursday that the Lower Merion School District broke no law when it imposed a redistricting plan that deprived nine South Ardmore students of their choice of high school.

U.S. District Judge Michael M. Baylson said school officials used race as part of a cornucopia of factors to pick the students' diverse neighborhood as a site for busing to the smaller of the district's two new high schools.

By taking other factors into consideration - the need for two equal high schools, educational continuity, and limiting travel time - district officials imbued the plan with "race-neutral" interests, Baylson wrote in the 31-page decision.

He ruled that mention of race alone as the plan evolved was not enough to constitute violation of the students' right to equal treatment under the law, as the plaintiffs had argued.

"A basic principle underlying this case is that pure 'racial balancing' at the high school level, standing alone, would be improper," Baylson wrote, "but that considering racial demographics alongside race-neutral, valid educational interests . . . has never been held unconstitutional."

Though even Baylson had predicted an appeal was inevitable in the closely watched case, the ruling represented a substantial win for the district, which is under fire in another case involving alleged spying via webcams in students' laptops.

Superintendent Christopher McGinley reacted swiftly to Baylson's opinion.

"The district is pleased with the outcome, grateful for the understanding and support of so many, and hopeful that the entire community can now work as one on the many difficult educational challenges we face on behalf of all our children," he said through school publicist Douglas Young.

Plaintiffs' attorney David G.C. Arnold said in an e-mail from his BlackBerry: "We are reviewing the decision and considering our options at this time."

Kermit Roosevelt, professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, called the ruling "very interesting."

"My quick thought is that the outcome is probably right, but I question the reasoning," he said, and added: "It's a novel and provocative legal analysis that will almost certainly be appealed."

During a nine-day trial in April, the students argued that their right to equal treatment under the law was dashed by the district's 2009 decision to assign them to Harriton High School in Rosemont.

Harriton is five miles from their homes, and the students were forced to go there by school bus. The pupils preferred to walk to Lower Merion High in Ardmore, which they consider their neighborhood school.

The pupils claimed in court papers filed last May 14 that by targeting their African American neighborhood, officials showed racial bias.

District attorney Judith E. Harris, in closing arguments June 9, said no child had been singled out for redistricting. And even when race was mentioned by officials, it was to make sure that minority children were not isolated from others like themselves in high school classrooms.

Baylson called the Lower Merion case "novel" in that he could find no other redistricting case in which a neighborhood, rather than a person, was targeted.

The case turned on the nature of freedom, whether it was valid to restrict choice, and whether circumstances in the Lower Merion matter matched a 2007 case involving pupil reassignment in Seattle schools.

In that case, a divided U.S. Supreme Court found the district violated students' rights by reassigning individuals based on race.

"The extensive testimony and exhibits presented during trial establish that the present case does not involve assigning particular students to attend Harriton High School based on individual racial classifications," Baylson ruled.

"Rather, the district assigned particular neighborhoods including the affected area to attend Harriton High School, and all the students in those neighborhoods, both those who were African American and those who were not, lost their choice of high school."

Therefore, Baylson wrote, the "facts and holding" of the Seattle case did not apply.

Contact staff writer Bonnie L. Cook at 610-313-8232 or bcook@phillynews.com.

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