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Schools' race formulas to linger

Quashing a bid by a group of white parents to end race-based student assignment in Boston Public Schools by September, a federal judge ruled Tuesday that racial formulas will still be used to send students to school next month.

The ruling, however, will not affect the Boston School Committee's recent vote to rid the school district of race-based student assignment by the fall of 2000.

Saying that the "onerous" task of reassigning as many as 20,000 students within five weeks would be too detrimental to parents, students and school staff, U.S. District Judge Nancy Gertner denied the request by a group of four white parents.

"Where I cannot conclude that there is a likelihood of success on the merits and where the burden of reassigning thousands of children and the possibility that the beginning of school could be delayed is so onerous, emergency relief cannot be justified," she wrote in the 34-page decision.

Tuesday's ruling is the latest in three years of challenges by white students to various Boston Public School student assignment and school admission policies. In June, a group of white parents filed a lawsuit to rid the system of race-based student assignment by this September.

Across the nation, such "reverse" discrimination cases are winning in federal courts that are shooting down affirmative action programs, most of which were designed as remedies for the substandard educational opportunities that black students had.

Tuesday night, school officials and parents breathed a sigh of relief as the logistical nightmare they were fearing was averted.

Because schools start at different hours throughout the city, many parents feared they would have to reconfigure complicated work or day care schedules if Gertner granted the request.

Many parents feared their children would be sent to worse schools than they had been assigned to.

Boston school Superintendent Thomas Payzant said he was pleased, adding that the white parents' motion was not necessary because the School Committee has already pledged to redesign the student assignment policy for next year.

Chester Darling, the attorney for the four white parents, said Gertner's ruling will mean disruption for younger students who will switch schools in September 2000 once a new student assignment plan is devised.

Darling asked Gertner to reassign all kindergarteners and first-graders without considering their race. Currently, students are assigned to schools based on race and parental choice.

"It wasn't going to be that disruptive. There could have been some flexibility to make accommodations for these children," Darling said.

Still, he said the ruling gave him and the advocacy group that helped file the lawsuit, Boston's Children First, renewed motivation to legally challenge the use of race in any student assignment plan.

The School Committee voted to abandon the system's race-based student assignment after the lawsuit was filed because the panel believed it would lose in court.

Gertner, while criticizing the parents for bringing the lawsuit so late in the year, said, "In the light of the evolving law of equal protection," their overall challenge to the assignment plan "is a fair one."

"If the law were clear and the remedy obvious, I would not hesitate to order the relief the plaintiffs have requested, no matter what the cost, just as courts have done when these issues were raised years ago by minority plaintiffs."