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Originally published June 30, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 30, 2007 at 2:03 AM

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Ex-Ballard principal says court ruling "fired me up again"

Man who quit in protest 5 years ago is deeply disappointed in this week's Supreme Court school decision.

Seattle Times education reporter

Before Ballard High ended up at the center of the lawsuit that the U.S. Supreme Court decided Thursday, David Engle thought he'd stay there until he retired.

It was his dream job, just blocks from his house, in an urban school and district facing race and class issues he wanted to tackle.

But in 2002, after only two years as principal, he felt he had to choose: remain at the school he loved, or follow his conscience and resign.

He left, despite his own initial doubts and those who questioned what his protest would accomplish. He still believes it was the right thing to do — even now that the Supreme Court has upheld the lower-court ruling that sparked his decision in the first place.

In a 5-4 decision Thursday, the justices struck down policies in Seattle and Jefferson County, Ky., that assigned some students to schools based solely on their race.

It was a historic decision that many expected, given the new composition of the Supreme Court. It put an end to voluntary desegregation efforts that don't consider factors beyond race.

Earlier this year, Engle, now a principal at Squalicum High in Bellingham, said he decided long ago he could live with whatever the court decided.

On Friday, however, he said he was angrier than he thought he would be and disappointed that Justice Anthony Kennedy didn't surprise everyone by joining with the liberal dissenters rather than the more conservative majority.

"It just fired me up again," he said.

Engle had just started at Ballard when a group of white parents from Seattle's Queen Anne and Magnolia neighborhoods went to court after their children were not enrolled at Ballard, the high school closest to their homes.

Engle was in his 50s then, with none of the silver now in his hair. Ballard was newly renovated, which gave the school a major boost. The waiting list was 300 students long.

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In their lawsuit, the parents challenged the district policy, known as the "racial tiebreaker," that gave preference to students who would improve a school's racial balance if that school had more applicants than seats. The parents argued that the policy was unconstitutional because it discriminated against students based on the color of their skin, and the Supreme Court has now agreed.

Engle, however, always believed the racial tiebreaker was one important political tool to help disadvantaged students get a better education. At Ballard, he said, he also became convinced of its educational value. He saw how quickly misunderstandings could occur between students when they couldn't communicate well with classmates from different races and backgrounds.

"I heard over and over again from the white kids that they knew this was a benefit to them," he said.

But the lawsuit didn't affect him much until April 2002, when the parents won their first court victory. That upset him, and made him wonder what he might do about it. He couldn't imagine what. A part of him also simply wished it didn't affect his students, his school.

Within days, however, he stopped thinking, "Why me?" and started asking, "Why not me?" Within a week, he'd made a decision. On April 25, he called students to the auditorium to announce he would resign in protest.

He braced himself for the worst: People might shrug their shoulders. His action, however, sparked much more response than he'd hoped. Overnight, he became a public figure. People stopped him everywhere he went. He stopped shopping in Ballard because he didn't always have the time for political discussions in the freezer aisle. But even in a Starbucks far from home one day, he found himself surrounded by a group of Garfield students who recognized him and wanted to talk.

Many applauded his action.

"I was shocked that he was willing to give up his job for his beliefs," said Ted Howard Sr., then principal at Cleveland High. "I admired him for that."

But he also received tirades laced with enough hate that he took a little more care as he walked or rode his bike to school. Even those who admired his motives had mixed feelings about his resignation.

"It was his decision to make, and it obviously showed courage," said Michael DeBell, a Seattle School Board member whose child was at Ballard at the time. "But the Seattle School District lost a good principal."

His colleagues from other high schools wrote a letter of support, but some of them also doubted whether leaving Ballard was the right move.

"We understood the sentiment behind it," said Franklin Principal Jennifer Wiley, who helped write the letter when she was principal at Summit K-12. "We had various opinions about whether he would accomplish what he hoped."

Engle felt he did, even if he worried that it might hurt him professionally.

He made a few inquiries about principal jobs in other districts; the inquiries went nowhere. He feared he was "politically radioactive." When the district offered him a central-office job advising high schools, he took it.

He moved to Bellingham almost three years ago, happy to be back in a high school again. Squalicum High has a largely white population but is steadily becoming more diverse. Engle took the job in part because of that.

Immersed in his work there, he almost didn't go to Washington, D.C., to hear the case argued in the Supreme Court last December. But a friend bought him a plane ticket. So on Dec. 4, Engle stood on the court's steps in 20-degree weather for hours to get a seat on the wooden benches inside.

The trip brought some closure.

Still, this week, he couldn't help but wish it had ended differently. At the hearing, he said, "I could tell Kennedy was really on the fence. I just wish he'd had the guts to come down on the other side."

The racial mix at Ballard today is just 6 percentage points different from when Engle left — 57 percent white then, 63 percent now. Even with the benefit of such hindsight, however, Engle says he would leave all over again.

His stand, he said, was always about more than just the tiebreaker. It was about how to provide a high-quality education for every student.

"This decision is not going to change that challenge," he said. "We have to keep talking."

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com

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