Buffalo School Board attorneys defended the district's admissions policies at City Honors in court papers filed Friday.
They said a diverse student population is essential to providing a quality education and submitted statistics that suggest the school's enrollment would be predominantly white if admission was based strictly on academic qualifications. The current enrollment is 55 percent white and 45 percent minority.
The district was responding to a lawsuit filed last week by Frank and Patricia Zagare of North Buffalo, whose daughter has been denied admission to sixth grade at City Honors. The suit contends the district's admission policies at City Honors discriminate against whites.
"Under the situation of this case, we don't think we did anything to violate the Constitution," said Assistant Corporation Counsel Paul Volcy. "If the court disagrees with us, (the student in question) wouldn't have gotten in anyway."
In their response to the suit filed in U.S. District Court, board attorneys made these points:
Promoting and maintaining a diverse student enrollment is a legitimate government purpose, and the district's admission policies represent a narrowly tailored strategy toward that end.
Those two points speak to what is at the heart of the case, and federal courts have issued conflicting opinions on those issues.
Superintendent James Harris, in an affidavit, said "a quality education without a diversified student population is not possible."
U.S. District Judge John T. Curtin's final order in the school desegregation case, issued Oct. 10, 1996, came too late in the admissions process for the district to revise plans in time for this school year. The district noted that it is now reviewing its admission procedures for schools such as City Honors where admission is based on academic achievement.
"The Supreme Court has held school districts should have some reasonable amount of time to make a transition," Volcy said. "The board feels it didn't have enough time."
The student in question is receiving an "excellent education" at Waterfront Elementary, one of the district's most sought-after magnet schools.
The student would not have gained admission to City Honors this year based on her qualifying score of 8.667 out of 10, tying with six other students for the fifth highest score.
None of the six was admitted, as the district selected three minorities with scores of 8.223, 8.133 and 8. But if the district had selected from among the students scoring 8.667, the plaintiffs' daughter would not have been selected because such ties are broken by selecting students in alphabetical order, and her name ends in Z.
If all whites with a score of at least 8 had been admitted to sixth grade, 14 additional students would have qualified, and those additional students would have required the school to add another sixth-grade class, which the school doesn't have the teacher or space to do, City Honors Principal Paul Lafonara said in an affidavit.
Test score data in the district's response show that white applicants for the sixth grade scored substantially higher than minorities. Whites had the 13 highest qualifying scores and 17 of the 20 highest scores.
The qualifying score is based on three criteria: results of an entrance exam, scores on standardized reading and math tests administered in earlier grades, and a teacher reference.
Half of the qualifying score is based on the entrance exam, an IQ-type test that measures problem-solving skills. White applicants for sixth grade averaged 49.5 out of a possible 100, compared with 37.4 for minorities.
Curtin's ruling last year placed the district in "unitary status," meaning the district is desegregated and free of all court orders. Once a district has achieved that status, race can be only one of several factors taken into account in assigning students, and not the overriding one.
Legal experts have generally maintained that the use of race-conscious admission policies are on particularly shaky legal ground when applied to schools likes City Honors, where admission is based on academic qualifications.
"The court's decision could well have national import," Volcy said in his court papers.
"What the national debate is focusing on is 'How do we maintain diversity in our schools, at all levels, and also not offend the constitutional mandates of equal protection?' " he said in an interview. "The courts have said race can't be a factor, but it can be a consideration. What is the difference? No one seems to have an answer."
Curtin may provide an answer when he holds a hearing on the case Wednesday.