DALLAS - A federal judge will not order the Dallas Independent School District ro raise taxes to pay for a desegregation project until voters have a chance to consider a $300 million bond program late next year.
In a four-page ruling Wednesday, U.S. District Chief Judge Barefoot Sanders left little doubt that he could order a onetime property tax increase to build the $45 million Townview School if voters reject a bond program in December 1992.
Citing the U.S. Supreme Court's 1990 ruling in Missouri v. Jenkins, the judge wrote, "It has long been established that the court has the authority to require the trustees of the school district to levy a tax for purposes of desegregation."
However, Judge Sanders said he decided not to order a tax increase until a bond program encompassing the Townview project went before the voters.
The district "asserts that a bond election is the only viable means available to them at this time for financing the construction of Townview," he noted.
Dallas school officials had feared that a court-imposed property tax increase might jeopardize the 1992 capital program by causing a voter backlash.
"It's good news," Superintendent Marvin Edwards said of the decision. "The court said it has the power, it's just not exercising it now."
"There's no difference in Judge Sander's powers and what the Supreme Court said in Missouri vs. Jenkins last year," agreed Ed Cloutman, lawyer for the plaintiffs in the 21-year-old Tasby v. Edwards desegration suit.
In Missouri v. Jenkins, the court said in a 5-to-4 decision that federal courts can order local governments to levy taxes to fund constitutional mandates, such as desegregation.
The case stemmed from a challenge by Kansas City, Mo., officials over whether a federal judge could order higher taxes to back a $150 million capital bond issue to finance court-ordered improvements in the district's desegregation case.
In Dallas, plaintiffs in Tasby v. Edwards asked the court to impose a one-time property tax to raise the estimated $45 million that will be needed to build Townview, a desegregated campus first proposed in 1976.
Such a tax would have required a 15% increase in the current levy to build the Townview project.
Dallas administrators worried about the effect on a multiproject package of up to $300 million that voters will decide on next December.
The referendum was originally set for this fall, but administrators wanted to avoid the bad feeling generated by their attempt to balance the district's $544 million budget by cutting teaching positions.
Student and parent demonstrations won nationwide attention and helped persuade the district to leave the teaching jobs alone.
Instead, it turned to spending cuts and a 17.5% property tax increase.
Administrators feared there could be more voter anger if Judge Sanders called for a levy.
"It would have created a bad climate," Mr. Edwards said. "We think the decision shows confidence in the school district's intent to build the project."
The superintendent said the district and its adviser expect early next year to decide on a final size for the bond referendum and on a structure that could require no immediate property tax increase to fund debt service.
The district is rated Aaa by Moody's Investors Service and AA-plus by Standard & Poor's Corp.
For nine years, Dallas has delayed building the Townview project, considered the centerpiece of court-ordered capital improvements for desegregation.
When district voters last approved a debt program, in 1985, a divided school board left the project out of the referendum.
Other proposals to use revenue bonds or other funds to build Townview have failed.
"Hopefully it will materialize with the bond election," said Mr. Cloutman. "Our concern all along has been that it has taken too long."