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    A sign opposing the district's closure plan remained in front of Maple Elementary School. The school was one of seven approved for closure this summer by district trustees.


    Tracie Green waits for her turn to speak at a school-closure meeting in February at Mark Hopkins Elementary School.

Families sue to block Sac City Unified school closures

Published: Wednesday, Jun. 12, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Wednesday, Jun. 12, 2013 - 7:58 am

A dozen minority students and their parents have filed suit in Sacramento-based federal court in a bid to block the Sacramento City Unified School District from closing seven elementary schools.

The suit complains that the district chose to close campuses in low-income, high-minority areas in south Sacramento because they are "without political influence or organization."

Attorney Mark Merin filed the suit late Monday in U.S. District Court and on Tuesday asked for a preliminary injunction that would block school closures until the case is resolved. Merin said the court could consider the preliminary injunction as early as July 9.

The suit described the decision by a slim majority of the school district board as "motivated by an intent to discriminate against minority populations which dominate in these schools." Closing the schools, the suit warned, will have a "disastrous discriminatory effect on the poor, disadvantaged population."

Trustees originally considered closing as many as 11 schools before voting on seven after getting community feedback. District officials said they identified campuses for closure based on how little each elementary school used its capacity, a measurement they suggested would save the most money.

District Superintendent Jonathan Raymond and board President Jeff Cuneo called the filing "an unsubstantiated and baseless lawsuit" that would be costly for the district.

The suit claims violations of federal and state laws governing due process and barring discrimination on the basis of race or national origin. It also claims violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, since a number of plaintiffs are special-needs students.

About 50 parents and children, including some plaintiffs, appeared outside the courthouse Tuesday in a press conference and rally organized by activist group Hmong Innovating Politics.

"It was clear that our communities were unfairly targeted," said Seng Vang of the activist group.

"The district betrayed our community's trust by targeting schools they had no justification for closing down," she said.

In a separate statement, she said that low-income families make up 72 percent of the student population districtwide but constitute 98 percent of the students who will be displaced by the closures.

Bee research shows about 93 percent of students attending the seven closure schools are minorities, compared with 81 percent districtwide.

The school board created a Facility Consolidation and Closure Committee that in 2011 recommended closure and consolidation of elementary schools in older, affluent neighborhoods, the suit said.

The board failed to reach a consensus and, thus, "rejected the recommendations of the committee because of the unacceptable impact on the schools in influential, affluent, white neighborhoods," the suit said.

District spokesman Gabe Ross in an email said there is no law requiring trustees to adopt a closure committee's recommendations.

The campuses now headed for closure will require some 2,300 students attending Washington, Maple, Collis P. Huntington, Fruit Ridge, Joseph Bonnheim, Mark Hopkins and Clayton B. Wire elementary campuses to travel longer distances to schools that often lack support programs, especially for special-needs students, the suit said.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit, in addition to the displaced students and their parents or guardians, include parent-teacher associations at three closing campuses.

The suit names as defendants the school district, Superintendent Raymond and the four trustees who supported the closure plan – board President Cuneo, Vice President Patrick Kennedy and members Darrel Woo and Jay Hansen.

In their email statement, Raymond and Cuneo cited the fiscal conditions behind the campus closures and said it is unfortunate "that the district must now spend tens of thousands of dollars to defend an unsubstantiated and baseless lawsuit."

Before the vote to close, the district's elementary school enrollments were at 56 percent of capacity, Raymond and Cuneo said, "a model that is both educationally inefficient and fiscally unsustainable." The district is counting on the closures to save nearly $1.1 million next school year in a $400 million budget.

"Had the district failed to take action," the two said, "it would have run the unacceptable risk of a 'negative' financial rating and start the district down the road to state takeover."

Call The Bee's Loretta Kalb, (916) 321-1073. Follow her on Twitter @LorettaSacBee. Read her Report Card blog at The Bee's Phillip Reese contributed to this report.

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