Latino and black plaintiffs are urging an appellate court to overturn the ruling of a federal judge that ended court oversight of the Tucson Unified School District's efforts to bring schools into racial balance.

In an 83-page brief filed Thursday in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, attorneys with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund argued that the court, eager to end decades of jurisdiction over the district, disregarded repeated instances of TUSD's lack of good faith of coming into compliance with a 1978 settlement agreement.

"There may not be 'whites only' and 'Mexicans only' signs at the schoolhouse door, but the record in this case proves the same result - denial of equal educational opportunity to Latino and African-American students," said attorney Cynthia Valenzuela. Noting her organization disagrees with the District Court's ruling that a desegregation order is no longer necessary, she pledged to "continue to challenge the ruling to ensure that each child in this school district has an equal opportunity for education regardless of race or national origin."

In lifting the order in December, Judge David Bury failed to consider critical evidence, her brief argues, in determining the district eliminated to the degree possible vestiges of past discrimination.

Latino plaintiffs were clear that they were relatively satisfied with the district's road map for the future, which relies heavily on specialized programs to prompt voluntarily movement across the district. While not perfect, the plan could be effective if it's implemented in good faith, they wrote. What they fear, the brief states, is that without court oversight, the Governing Board could modify it and render the plan ineffective.

Latino plaintiffs argued that the judge lifted the order despite evidence the district wasn't in compliance with ethnic and racial ratios.

In 2004, for example, when the district's total elementary school population was 70 percent minority, 20 of the district's 86 elementary schools had minority populations higher than 90 percent. Meanwhile, four elementary schools had Anglo enrollment in excess of 70 percent.

While the district argued that it couldn't be responsible for demographic shifts over time, plaintiffs argued the district's own policies exacerbated disparities.

Take magnet schools. In 2004, all but one of the district's magnet schools were out of compliance with ratios spelled out in desegregation standards. Plaintiffs said the district could have changed marketing tactics, offered more targeted recruitment or changed its curricular themes to create more integration.

They also note that of the 19 magnet programs, 14 were located west of Alvernon Way. Since the minority population is largely clustered west of Alvernon, it meant white students had better access to magnet opportunities.

The district also allowed inappropriate student transfers that made imbalances worse, plaintiffs explained. Under 2004 open enrollment policies, for example, TUSD allowed 451 minority students to transfer to schools that were already 90 percent or more minority, while allowing 1,138 Anglo students to transfer to schools that were racially identifiable as Anglo.

Finally, the brief argues the district didn't follow the desegregation order in good faith, pointing to the federal court's own rulings that chastised the district leaders. In a 2008 ruling, for example, the judge found "that TUSD has failed to make the most basic inquiries necessary to assess the ongoing effectiveness of its student assignment plans, policies and programs. … Instead, TUSD has ignored evidence and refused to answer questions concerning the effectiveness of these programs to address the demographic shifts in its schools."

As a result of that failure, the court wrote, "millions of dollars were spent arbitrarily." The court also found TUSD failed to fully assess the placement of minority faculty throughout the district.

Consequently, the court was wrong, plaintiffs argued, by deciding "to return control of the school system to the very school board whose lack of good faith it had just detailed."

The plaintiffs are asking that the court retain oversight until there is proof of the district's "good faith commitment" to the plan approved by the court.

TUSD's attorney, Rob Ross, said he was still reviewing both sets of arguments filed by the plaintiffs, and would have a full response when TUSD's brief is due in early August.

But in general, he said, "The District Court judge made his order of unitary status, knowing all of that information, and was satisfied that our plan going forward addresses the concerns that were raised in the suit."

Contact reporter Rhonda Bodfield at 573-4243 or rbodfield@azstarnet.com