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Bailing out Piscataway school board: civil rights groups avoid possibility of allowing Supreme Court to make “bad law.” – Piscataway, New Jersey, case before U.S. Supreme Court

The settlement of a New Jersey reverse discrimination case by civil
rights groups has headed off a potential U.S. Supreme Court ruling many
activists believe would have dealt a death blow to affirmative action
programs in the United States.

Last month, Sharon Taxman, a White teacher in Piscataway, NJ.,
accepted a $433,500 out-of-court settlement agreement to end her
nine-year-old discrimination lawsuit against the Piscataway Township
Board of Education. Taxman had been laid off in 1989 by the Board of
Education so that a Black teacher with similar qualifications could be
retained by the school district for diversity reasons.

A coalition of civil rights groups, which included the National
Urban League and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, are
contributing 70 percent of the settlement to bring an end to an appeal
that was scheduled to be heard by the Supreme Court in early 1998.

“I think the settlement move by the coalition was somewhat unusual.
It was extraordinary. But I think they were being realistic knowing the
conservative makeup of this Supreme Court,” says U.S. Congressman John
Lewis (D-Georgia), a veteran civil rights activist.

The settlement was ununsual in part because civil rights
organizations have tended in the past to have more confidence that
federal courts would preserve affirmative action programs rather than
dismantle them outright, according to Congressman Lewis.

“There was more willingness to rely on the courts,” says
Congressman Lewis. Civil rights activists feared that the conservative
Supreme Court would issue a ruling in the Piscataway case which would
result in widespread dismantling of affirmative action, including its
use in higher education. Last August, the coalition, under the guidance
of the Black Leadership Forum, decided to seek a settlement in the
case. As a result, the group agreed to raise the cash necessary for a
settlement agreement, essentially bailing out the school district.

“There is an old adage that bad cases make for bad law, and this
was one of the worst cases imaginable for defenders of affirmative
action,” National Urban League President Hugh B. Price told The New
York Times.

“It was an easy and dangerous case that could have made bad law,”
said Walter E. Dellinger III, the recently retired solicitor general
who had prepared the Clinton Administration’s brief urging the court to
reject taking the case.

Michael Olivas, a law professor at the University of Houston, says
he believes the use of affirmative action in “layoff cases” faces a
more hostile reception in the courts than it would in an university or
college admissions case.

“Layoff cases are tough cases to defend. Decisions in layoff cases
are going to be most negative. Courts are more willing to accept
affirmative action in a context, such as college admissions, than they
are in employee layoffs,” Olivas said.

Olivas praised the civil rights coalition for taking a “moral and
courageous stand” in raising the money to settle the case. He expressed
disdain, however, for the actions of the Piscataway school board dating
back to when it initially carried out the teacher layoffs.

When laying off Taxman, the school board maintained that she and
Debra Williams, the Black teacher who was retained, were similarly
qualified for the position. Although Taxman and Williams had been hired
on the same day, denying either the advantage of seniority, Williams
possessed a master’s degree and Taxman had a bachelor’s. Williams and
others believe that point, the disparity in educational backgrounds,
should have been used as the basis for laying off Taxman.

“I thought the school district behaved dreadfully in deciding how
they were going to handle this matter. They acted foolishly when they
made this a racial case knowing full well how it would turn out,”
Olivas said.

According to the New York Times, Taxman has a bachelor’s degree in
business education from the State University of New York at Buffalo.
Williams has a bachelor’s degree in business education from Missippi
Valley State University. She has a master’s degree in business
education from Mississippi State University.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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