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Federal judge denies parents group’s request to set aside exam school ruling

Boston Latin School.John Tlumacki

A federal district court judge once again refused to throw out a new admissions policy for Boston’s vaunted exam schools, issuing a scathing ruling Friday that criticized both school officials and the group of parents who had challenged the city’s efforts to increase diversity among accepted applicants.

Judge William Young ended up reaffirming his earlier ruling that the School Committee’s new policy of admitting qualified students based on race, socioeconomics, and ZIP codes is legal. The decision is the latest in the long history of legal challenges to one of Boston’s most enduring controversies, the limited access to the city’s three exam schools and the chronic lack of diversity at its most prestigious, the Boston Latin School.

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Young said in his 55-page ruling the Boston Parent Coalition for Academic Excellence had continued to press “erroneous” legal arguments that the district’s plan was not race-neutral “despite explicit contrary law within this Circuit.” He also cited other legal backing, including a higher court’s denial of an earlier appeal brought by the parents.

“The law here has been and remains clear: where the governmental action is facially race neutral and uniformly applied, ‘good faith [is] presumed in the absence of a showing to the contrary’ that the action has a disparate impact, the spawn of an invidious discriminatory purpose,” Young wrote.

While so far unsuccessful, the legal challenge nonetheless featured several remarkable turns, and Young’s final word in the case included an unusual message to those most affected by the controversy — the students.

In July, Young took the highly unusual step of withdrawing his initial opinion rejecting the lawsuit because he said he believed the school system’s attorneys misled him by excluding racially charged text messages from the court record.

In the messages, then-Boston School Committee members Alexandra Oliver-Dávila and Lorna Rivera complained about “white racists” and white West Roxbury residents they predicted would oppose an admission plan to use student ZIP codes as a way of boosting racial and socioeconomic diversity at the city’s three exam schools.

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After that ruling, the parents group had argued to Young that they were impeded in preparing their case because of the withheld texts. But in his decision Friday, Young shot that argument down while also questioning why the texts were not released.

“How and why [Catherine] Lizotte [the legal adviser for Boston Public Schools] and company did not disclose these pertinent messages is suspect and indicative of an effort by the School Committee to keep them hidden, perhaps because they were so embarrassingly racially charged,” Young wrote.

William Hurd, an attorney for the parents group, declined to comment Friday evening, saying he had not had an opportunity to review the decision with his client.

A Boston Public Schools spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Young also was critical of the parents group for requesting to reopen the case because of newly emerged evidence, yet turning down an opportunity to demand additional evidence from the School Department.

The coalition gave up that chance “NOT because it felt as though it had turned over every evidentiary rock but because, given its erroneous view of the law, it saw no need to overturn any more rocks than it already had examined,” Young wrote.

Young expressed frustration with both sides of the case. In one footnote to the ruling, Young references Southern author William Faulkner and Broadway composers Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein in a discussion on the evils of racism, calling “it the syphilis of American public discourse and civic engagement.”

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In another, he addresses Boston Public Schools students directly.

“Are you following this case? Not a very edifying spectacle, is it?” he writes. “The Boston School Committee is charged, under law, with providing each of you with the finest education possible within the budget. In voting on your Exam School Admissions plan, the then chair mocked some of you, your parents, or your friends. Two of the then members texted they ‘hated’ you, your parents, or your friends.”

He ends the footnote with a confession for the students, and words of encouragement.

“And me? The trial judge? — I am revealed as a Pollyanna, wanting to believe better of people than was in fact the case, something you probably knew all along,” he writes.

“You can do better than this.

“With love and respect, you will.

“We’re counting on you.”

James Vaznis of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.