Appeals court faults layoff based on race N.J. school system cited diverse workplace policy in retaining black teacher


In an important affirmative action ruling, a federal appeals court declared yesterday that a school district facing layoffs should not have used race as the primary reason to dismiss a white teacher.

The Board of Education of Piscataway, N.J., cited its policy to seek a diverse workplace when deciding in 1989 which of two teachers to lay off, a black teacher or a white one who were equally experienced and qualified.

The 3rd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals found the district's policy to be unlawful because it was not put into place to remedy past discrimination and because it unnecessarily violated the rights of a nonminority employee.

Lawyers for both sides, as well as government officials and legal scholars who have followed the history of affirmative action, agreed that the ruling would be closely studied throughout the United States and that the issues it addressed would one day be taken up by the Supreme Court.

The questions studied by the Philadelphia-based appeals court seem sure to form the basis for a rethinking of employment policies based on race.

They have already bitterly divided high officials of the Clinton administration, which switched sides in the case and then was allowed to bow out.

The issues raised in the Piscataway case revolve around Title VII of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Essentially, Title VII was enacted to end discrimination in the workplace on the basis of race, religion, sex or national origin, and to remedy the scarcity of minority workers that past discrimination had caused.

When appellate courts, including the high court itself, have upheld race-based employment practices, they have often looked to the spirit and language of the 1964 act.

The Piscataway Board of Education enacted an affirmative action policy in 1975 in response to a New Jersey Board of Education directive that local school boards do so.

In 1989, the school board accepted a recommendation from the superintendent of schools to cut the ranks of business teachers by one.

The decision on whom to lay off came down to Sharon Taxman and Debra Williams.

Taxman and Williams were found to be equally qualified and have equal seniority, and to be virtually alike in ability and enthusiasm.

But Williams was black, and as the board president, Theodore H. Kruse, later put it in a deposition, "I believe by retaining Mrs. Williams it was sending a very clear message that our staff should be culturally diverse."

Taxman, represented by Stephen Klausner, a lawyer from Somerville, N.J., filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. A federal district court upheld part of Taxman's complaint.

Pub Date: 8/10/96

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