Affirmative Action Case Avoids Court
By Amy Westfeldt
PISCATAWAY, N.J. (AP) Using money from civil rights groups, the Piscataway school board agreed to a surprise out-of-court settlement of an affirmative action dispute that was expected to yield one of the most important U.S. Supreme Court rulings on the issue in years.
The school board agreed 5-3 late Thursday to pay white business teacher Sharon Taxman $433,500 after the Black Leadership Forum said it would pay 70 percent of the settlement, Mrs. Taxman's attorney Steven E. Klausner said today.
Klausner said he and school board lawyer David B. Rubin would ask the Supreme Court to drop its consideration of the case. The nation's highest court has grown increasing hostile to race-based policies no matter how benign their intent.
``This settlement demonstrates the panic within the civil rights establishment,'' said Clint Bolick of the conservative Institute for Justice in Washington, D.C. ``This could have been a knockout blow for racial preferences.''
American Civil Liberties Union attorney Chris Hansen said supporters of affirmative action faced a tough fight on this case because of the unique set of facts involved two women with similar qualifications hired the same day.
``It was a perfect example of how odd cases can skew rulings,'' Hansen said.
Mrs. Taxman, 50, learned of the vote early today, Klausner said: She was ``glad it's over. It's kind of anticlimactic. Nine years this has been in the works.''
The black teacher who didn't lose her job, Debra Williams, was at the sparsely attended meeting and sobbed after the settlement was reached, The Star-Ledger of Newark reported.
Reginald Johnson, president of the local NAACP chapter, told the newspaper: ``She doesn't support the settlement. She believes the case was strong and the board could have won.''
In the hallway at Piscataway High School this morning, Ms. Williams made one brief comment: ``You don't get nothing in this world for having an advanced degree. You don't get nothing but a slap in the face.'' She declined to talk further.
Ms. Williams, 45, had said earlier that she was upset by the perception of some that her only qualification was her race, or that she and Mrs. Taxman were equally qualified, as the Board of Education concluded.
Ms. Williams finished a master's degree in business education shortly after arriving at Piscataway, while Mrs. Taxman never completed her graduate degree. But Mrs. Taxman came to the school with three years' experience teaching business, while Ms. Williams had less than one.
School board members said the money from the Black Leadership Forum, a confederation of civil rights organizations, persuaded them to drop their case. The Supreme Court was scheduled to hear arguments Jan. 14 and issue a ruling by July.
It's highly unusual for groups not party to the case being considered by the Supreme Court to help fund an out-of-court settlement.
``It's obvious to me that they were afraid that affirmative action might be very badly damaged if the Supreme Court had decided the case,'' Klausner said.
On Nov. 3, the justices let stand California's groundbreaking Proposition 209, a ban on race and gender preference in hiring and school admission. The nation's highest court rejected a challenge to the California measure by a coalition of civil rights groups.
Besides the California and New Jersey cases, the court has not agreed to review any other affirmative action disputes during the current term.
The Piscataway case started in 1989 when Ms. Williams and Mrs. Taxman were told that one of them would be laid off because the school needed to cut its 10-teacher business staff by one and each of them had the least seniority. State law requires teachers be laid off in order of seniority, but since the women had been hired on the same day in 1980, and the board deemed both women equally qualified, the board had to find another way.
Ted Kruse, a board member at the time, said the board chose to keep Ms. Williams to promote diversity for the students, 30 percent of whom are black.
``It was an educational decision, not a legal one,'' Kruse said earlier this year. ``Educationally, I still believe in it.''
The Bush administration initially sued the school district in 1991, looking for ways to limit racial preferences in hiring.
Mrs. Taxman got her job back in 1992 but continued her pursuit of back pay.
A federal judge awarded Mrs. Taxman $144,000 in back pay in 1993. The school board appealed, but by then, President Clinton had been elected. The new administration tried to switch sides to support the school board.
In August, the administration, which had dropped out of the case, reversed itself, arguing that while it supports affirmative action, the board illegally laid off Mrs. Taxman.
The Justice Department was not involved in the talks that led to the settlement and learned about it from the news, spokesman Bert Brandenburg said.
© Copyright 1997 The Associated Press