By Peter J. Weishaar

The successful conclusion of a case—whether by verdict or settlement—is often one of the most rewarding parts of practicing law.  While it is certainly professionally satisfying to win a hard-fought case, it is especially gratifying to know how that victory will impact our client.  Rarely do we see impacts beyond the initial representation, however.  One such case that’s had a lasting impact is Brewer v. West Irondequoit Central School District, a case upholding the Urban Suburban Interdistrict Transfer Program, one of the oldest voluntary inter-district desegregation programs in the country against a constitutional challenge. 

The Program "voluntarily reduces racial isolation and the segregation of academic opportunities in the elementary and secondary schools of New York State in order to enhance racial/ethnic awareness and sensitivity between and among students, teachers, and parents in the elementary and secondary schools of the State.” Program participation involves a voluntary commitment by each suburban district, and the decision-making processes around whether suburban schools would participate were typically accompanied by vigorous debate, and the public airing of racial attitudes and prejudices. The program survived an early legal challenge in the 1960s in Etter v. Littwitz, as well as funding cuts and recurring political opposition to its state funding, but faced another challenge decades later.

As the 1998-1999 school-year was about to begin, parents of a White student from the City of Rochester commenced a federal civil rights lawsuit, challenging the Urban-Suburban Interdistrict Transfer Program because it refused to permit the student to transfer from her city school to one in the West Irondequoit Central School District—one of the suburban school districts participating in the Program.  Our firm defended the Program against this “reverse discrimination” lawsuit, which put the entire Program in jeopardy, and ultimately required an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit before it could be resolved.  While the case was on appeal, amicus curiae briefs were submitted in support of our position by the United States Department of Justice, the State of New York, and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.

It’s no secret that the schools in New York State, including Rochester’s, are among the most segregated in America.  As local organizations, including Great Schools for All, and the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative, work to remedy the challenges faced by Rochester’s schools, we are honored to have played a role in preserving one of the oldest voluntary desegregation programs in the country, so that today—16 years after the litigation concluded—the Program continues to provide a remedy for the de facto segregation that exists in the schools of the Rochester metropolitan area.

The Program began in 1965, with the voluntary transfer of 25 minority students from the Rochester City School District to the predominantly white West Irondequoit Central School District.  Over time, the Program expanded to include more transferring students and additional participating suburban school districts. 

When the litigation began in 1998, only six suburban districts participated in the Program:  Brockport, Penfield, Brighton, Pittsford, Wheatland-Chili, and West Irondequoit.  Over the last several years, the Program has seen significant growth, and with the recent addition of the Rush-Henrietta Central School District next year, the Program will include 12 suburban districts out of 16 in Monroe County.  The only districts not participating are Churchville-Chili, Gates Chili, Greece and Honeoye Falls-Lima. 

The Program operates and is funded pursuant to State legislative and State Education Department authorization.  Program literature and historical news accounts in the record report that the Program was the first such voluntary inter-district desegregation effort in the United States.  At the time of our appeal, the Program was the only one of its kind in New York State, and according to a 2014 Report from The Civil Rights Project of UCLA, the Program is one of only eight voluntary inter-district programs in the nation. 

Although the “outbound” component of the Program generates the most press, at the time of our appeal there was also an “inbound” component to the Program, whereby non-minority students transfer from participating suburban districts to attend school in Rochester.  According to information in the record, approximately 29 suburban students transferred inbound to attend a Rochester City School District school for the 1996-97 school year, and 50 students did so for the 1998-99 school year. In upholding the Program, the Brewer court held “that a compelling interest can be found in a program that has as its object the reduction of racial isolation and what appears to be de facto segregation.” 

As more and more young children from Rochester begin their education in the suburban districts who have joined the Program, it is our hope that they will be welcomed by their new peers–including many whose parents may have been opposed to joining the Program.  Although society continues to struggle with whether or not voluntary desegregation programs like this are constitutionally permissible, many people believe that all of these children–whether from the suburbs or the city–will benefit from interactions with other children from different backgrounds.  The attorneys of our litigation department are honored to have successfully defended a challenge to this Program, contributing to advancing desegregation and reducing racial isolation, so that it can continue to have a positive impact on students now and for years to come.

The McConville Considine trial lawyers who successfully defended the Urban-Suburban Program are  Kevin S. Cooman, and Peter J. Weishaar.  Our firm handles a wide variety of civil litigation matters; please contact any of our trial lawyers with any litigation-related questions. 

 

This publication is intended as an information source for clients, prospective clients, and colleagues and constitutes attorney advertising. The content should not be considered legal advice and readers should not act upon information in this publication without individualized professional counsel.

About MCCM

McConville Considine Cooman & Morin, P.C. is a full service law firm based in Rochester, New York, providing high quality legal services to businesses and individuals since 1979.  With over a dozen attorneys and a full paralegal support staff, the firm is well-positioned to right-size services tailored to each client. We are large enough to provide expertise in a broad range of practice areas, yet small enough to devote prompt, personal attention to our clients.

We represent a diverse range of clients located throughout New York State and New England.  They include individuals, numerous manufacturing and service industry businesses, local governments, and health care professionals, provider groups, facilities and associations. We also serve as local counsel to out-of-state clients and their attorneys who have litigation pending in Western New York courts.  For more information, please contact us at 585.546.2500.