WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court yesterday left in doubt the status of a $29 million bond referendum for the bibb County, Ga., school district by sending the case back to a lower court on a procedural issue.

The move could delay by a year or more resolution of the debate over whether school bond elections are covered by the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, which requires meaningful minority participation in elections.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit had ruled that the structure of a question on a bond referendum is "a standard, practice, or procedure affecting voting" under the voting rights law.

But the Supreme Court yesterday voided that ruling, and sent the case back to the appeals court to determine whether the appeals panel had jurisdiction over the case when it issued its opinion.

The jurisdictional question arose because the appeals court issued its decision overturning a federal district court ruling over before the district court ruling before the district court had disposed of several related constitutional claims raised by the plaintiffs in the dispute.

The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure state that appeals courts have jurisdiction only over final decisions unless the district court handling multiple claims certifies the case,a standard not met in the Bibb County case.

The case, Board of Education and Orphanage for Bibb County v. Lucas, began in late 1987, when the school board voted to place a bond referendum on the ballot on March 8, 1988, to finance air conditioning at county schools.

A few weeks later, the board voted to postpone the election until May 31, 1988, and to increase the amount of the bond issue in order to finance not only the air conditioning but also the construction of addditional schools.

The action was challenged by African-American voters in Bibb County, who argued that the shift in election days would dilute voter turnout among blacks. March 8 was the so-called Super Tuesday, when a host of Southern states held presidential primaries. Jesse L. Jackson, then a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, was on the March 8 ballot.

They charged that under section five of the voting law, the school board had to obtain preclearance from the Justice Department to switch the day of the election. Section five requires governments in some, mostly Southern, states to submit to Justice Department review any change in an election.

A federal district court, however, ruled that the scheduling of special elections did not fall under the voting rights law. The court's ruling did not come until after the scheduled election date, and the case became moot.

Then on June 9, 1988, the board approved a $29 million bond referendum for the air conditioning project, school construction, and a magnet school program. The election was scheduled for Nov. 8, 1988. The board obtained preclearance from the Justice Department on the timing of the election.

But the referendum again was challenged by African-American voters, who said that not only the date of the election, but the form of the ballot question, needed preclearance.

The ballot question read, "Shall general obligation school bonds in the amount of $29,000,000 be issued by Bibb County?"

A federal district court in March 1989 again ruled that section five of the law did not apply to such issues, and the bond issue subsequently was approved on a narrow vote. The U.S. Supreme Court, on Jan. 22, 1990, summarily affirmed the district court's ruling.

But in the meantime, the plaintiffs sought relief in another district court under section two of the voting law. Section two applies to all states and prohibits any "standard, practice, or procedure" that results in the abridgment of anyone's right to vote.

The plaintiffs argued that the wording of the ballot question prevented African-American voters from being able to vote for the airconditioning project while voting against new school construction, meaning their vote was diluted in violation of the Constitution and the voting rights law.

The district court ruled against the plaintiffs, but on appeal the 11th Circuit court held that "combining multiple bond projects in a single referendum" constituted a "standard, practice, or procedure" with the potential to abridge minority rights.

The Justice Department, in a friend-of-the-court brief urging the high court to send the case back to the appeals panel to clear up the jurisdictional questions, said that the phrasing of bond referendum questions is similar to determinations of how much bonded indebtedness are required for a project or the interest rate a school board is willing pay. The department said such questions are unrelated to voting and are of an "educational and fiscal" nature.

The department also said that should the 11th Circuit's ruling stand, the voting law would cover "the wording and scope of every bond referendum."

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