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Judge ready to settle Ayers case

By Staff
From staff and wire reports
Jan. 4, 2002
JACKSON A settlement of Mississippi's long-running college desegregation case depends on the Legislature convincing a federal judge it buys into the $500 million pact.
U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers Jr. said Thursday if lawmakers provide those assurances, he "will not stand in the way" and the settlement will be accepted by the court.
A 1975 lawsuit filed by the late Jake Ayers Sr., on behalf of his son, Jake Jr., claimed the state was neglecting its historically black schools. In 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with Ayers and sent the case back to Biggers.
The agreement to end the court case, providing millions of dollars for programs and capital improvements at the state's three historically black schools, was signed by all sides in April and forwarded to Biggers.
The judge's order on Thursday came as state lawmakers prepare to open the 2002 Legislature on Tuesday facing a major budget crunch.
Some legislators in East Central Mississippi said they want the Ayers case settled. At least one of them, state Sen. Sampson Jackson II, D-DeKalb, said the settlement isn't enough.
State Rep. Greg Snowden, R-Meridian, said he hopes "that we could get the Ayers case behind us. I think it (the settlement) has some possibilities."
But he added that the exact amount of the settlement, how it will be structured, how it will be used and how it will correct vestiges of segregation must be considered.
Gov. Ronnie Musgrove said legislative leaders were involved in the settlement process and he expected them to continue to support it.
Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck said the settlement, which will be spread over 17 years, "was structured in such a way that we could handle this with our budget situation."
Biggers acknowledged that opponents see the state settlement as expensive and as tying the hands of officials who might seek organizational reforms in higher education for the length of the pact.
He said proponents believe the settlement will end the elongated legal case.
Settlement awards money
The settlement calls for $246 million to be spent over 17 years on academic programs at the historically black institutions Jackson State University, Alcorn State University and Mississippi Valley State University.
An additional $75 million would go to capital improvement projects, $70 million to public endowments and up to $35 million for private endowments. Other programs, including summer classes for struggling students, will receive the balance.
The settlement also requires the historically black universities to reach at least 10 percent non-black enrollment for three consecutive years before they can fully control endowments.
Mississippi has put about $90 million into Biggers-ordered scholarships and endowments at the three black universities.
Some of the plaintiffs, including surviving members of the Ayers family, have sought to withdraw from the settlement. They said it does little to end discrimination against the state's black colleges.
The opt-out request was denied by Biggers but could be addressed by a higher court later.
Biggers expresses doubts
Even Biggers said he had doubts the settlement would achieve the desegregation of higher education that he at the direction of the U.S. Supreme Court had sought since 1994.
Biggers said his own plan to bring about full desegregation of the eight public universities had stabilized admission standards and increased black enrollment at white universities.
Biggers said his plan had created new programs at Jackson State and would have done likewise at Alcorn State and Mississippi Valley State had not the settlement proposal been filed.
In the end, Biggers said the settlement would be nothing without assurance from the Legislature that it will appropriate money for what needs to be done.
Judge Neal Biggers' order:
Here are excerpts from U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers Jr.'s order Thursday in Mississippi's college desegregation case:
If the elected representatives of the state and the private plaintiffs have reached an agreement and want to settle the case, the court should allow them to do so, notwithstanding reservations of the court.''
Some proponents say the proposal, if accepted, will end the case but, as a practical matter, it will continue for 17 years, cost more, take longer to complete and do less for desegregation than the court plan.''
The court has an interest in preventing the appearance … of being used for political purposes as a tool to obtain money from the state to fund a proposal which would not otherwise be appropriated.''
If the Legislature advises the court that it agrees with the parties on their proposal, then the court will not stand in the way, and the proposal will be accepted by this court.''