The parents of a white student denied admission to City Honors School sued the Buffalo Board of Education Wednesday, contending the racial quotas used to determine enrollment at the school discriminate against whites.
The lawsuit is the first legal challenge to the system's admission practices since U.S. District Judge John T. Curtin ended two decades of court oversight of the city school system a year ago.
"The essence of the suit is that the district is using quotas and set-asides, and it shouldn't," said Paul Weiss, attorney for the plaintiffs. "If admission to the school is based on grades, it should be on grades alone. For the School Board to say 'We're going to look at something other than merit' is wrong."
The suit, which Curtin will handle, was filed by Frank and Patricia Zagare on behalf of their daughter, a sixth-grader at Waterfront Elementary School. The family lives in North Buffalo, and Zagare is a professor of political science at the University at Buffalo.
Weiss said he tried to negotiate a settlement short of filing suit, but to no avail.
Zagare said he and his wife struggled with their decision to sue, but in the end decided they had to act in the best interest of their daughter.
"We were very reluctant to pursue this, but there was no other avenue available," Zagare said.
Their daughter was denied admission to City Honors for fifth grade even though her qualifying score -- based on her grades, an entrance exam and teacher recommendation -- was higher than that of 25 of 36 minority students admitted for the 1996-97 school year, according to the suit.
Her qualifying score for admission to sixth grade this school year was higher than any of the three minorities admitted to City Honors in that grade, according to the suit.
The Zagares contend their daughter is being denied her constitutional rights and is being discriminated against because of her race. The suit asks the court to order the system to admit the girl to City Honors, regarded as the best middle and high school in the city and one of the best in Western New York.
The suit maintains that the district's use of race in assigning students no longer is permissible because Curtin has ended federal court oversight of the district.
Superintendent James Harris, in a prepared statement issued today, didn't address the lawsuit head-on but emphasized that the district is reviewing admission policies and is committed to diversity.
"We are in the process of reviewing our procedures for admission, but we must be very careful in the interim not to act in any way that might prejudice our position or have a negative impact on the eventual outcome of the process," Harris said. "In other words, we need to act in accordance with the guidelines in the prior court case until a new system is in place."
The case is similar to a suit filed against the Boston, Mass., schools, which resulted in the system there admitting a white student to a City Honors-type program and revising the use of quotas at the school.
The Buffalo system avoided a legal challenge to its use of racial quotas at City Honors when it agreed last month to admit two white students whose parents said they were prepared to sue on grounds that the admission procedures discriminate against whites.
Harris today disputed the notion that the two students were admitted because of the threatened lawsuit, but at the time they were accepted he said the suit was one of several factors that influenced the district's decision. Moreover, the father of one of the two girls admitted said Harris and other district officials largely ignored him until they engaged a lawyer and threatened legal action.
The district has been using racial quotas to determine enrollment at its magnet schools since the late 1970s, when Curtin ordered schools desegregated. The initial goal was school enrollment evenly divided between whites and minorities. In the early 1990s, Curtin changed the goal to 60 percent minority to reflect the district's changing demographics.
Minorities now account for two-thirds of the system's enrollment.
Curtin ended his order a year ago, thereby limiting if not eliminating the system's legal grounds for using race in determining student placements.
Most legal experts feel the system can continue to use quotas in placing students at most magnet schools, where students are drawn by lottery. But the experts have cautioned that the system is on shaky legal ground in using quotas at schools where academic qualifications are a prerequisite for admission.