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Jacksonville Panel To Assess Future Of Busing Plan

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School and civic leaders in Duval County, Fla.--widely considered one of the most successfully desegregated districts in the country--are studying the possibility of dismantling the district's court-ordered busing plan and sending children to neighborhood schools.

Herb A. Sang, the county's superintendent of schools, this month appointed a 27-member committee, made up of representatives from several community groups, to study the future of desegregation in the 99,000-student district, which includes Jacksonville.

Changing Patterns

The committee, which is to hold its first meeting within a few weeks, will examine the implications of neighborhood schools in light of changing housing patterns. The group has no fixed schedule, but Mr. Sang said he expects a recommendation within a year.

"It could be adjustment in what we're doing, it might be elimination, or it might be doing nothing--just leaving it as it is," he said.

The superintendent said he is a strong supporter, for educational reasons, of neighborhood schools--which have never existed in Jacksonville because prior to desegregation, children were bused out of their neighborhoods to attend one-race schools.

Mr. Sang maintains that, after 11 years of busing, all vestiges of discrimination have been eradicated from Duval County's schools and that the county's uniform curriculum ensures equal educational opportunity for students in all schools.

Similar Steps

At least three other sizable districts that have been under busing orders have tried or are considering similar steps.

The school board in Norfolk, Va., has asked its superintendent and administrative staff to examine the possibility of returning to neighborhood elementary schools after 11 years of busing.

In Boston, the lawyer for the black plaintiffs in the city's desegregation suit is advocating a "freedom-of-choice" plan to replace the mandatory student-assignment scheme now in place. The plan would have to be agreed to by several parties to the suit, who are trying to work out a final consent decree.

And in Denver, the only such effort to go to court so far failed last month when U.S. District Judge Richard P. Matsch rejected the school board's proposal that an open-enrollment plan be substituted for the mandatory student-assignment plan that has been in use since the early 1970's.

Mr. Sang, however, does not consider the Denver decision an obstacle to broad changes in the way students are assigned in Jacksonville.

"What we're doing is somewhat different," he said. "We're working with the entire community. If we can come to mutual agreement among this particular group, it seems to me that a federal court is going to be hard-pressed to take [the opposite] stand once it has been given a neutral overview by a cross-section of the community."

Two Representatives

The committee, which will be headed by a prominent local lawyer, includes two representatives of the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (naacp)--the organization that originally filed the desegregation suit, Mims v. Duval County Board of Education.

One of Mr. Sang's appointees, Willye F. Dennis, chairman of the local naacp's education committee, said the organization would have no comment until the superintendent has submitted a formal plan in writing.

"We have to be so careful not to create a new problem while we're trying to solve a problem," Ms. Dennis said. "I don't know what we're going to do, because I don't know exactly what he has in mind."

Ms. Dennis said the naacp "knew this was coming, and we prepared ourselves for it," but declined to elaborate.

Large Burden

One of Mr. Sang's contentions--with which Ms. Dennis said she does not necessarily agree--is that the busing plan places a disproportionately large burden on black children.

Busing was necessary to eliminate illegal segregation in Jacksonville and "has served its purpose well," the superintendent said. "But we must continue to weigh whether or not the remedy reaches the point where it's more of a liability to students than a benefit. ... No remedy is intended as permanent. It should be evaluated in terms of the present."

Of the 43,000 Duval County students who ride buses to school each day, some 18,000--more than half of them black--are transported solely for purposes of desegregation. About 34 percent of the county's students are black; the enrollment in an individual school may vary substantially from that average.

An informal, preliminary analysis of housing patterns shows that very few neighborhoods are more than 90-to-92 percent black or white, Mr. Sang said. But he conceded that there are "some isolated instances" of total housing segregation that might result in some one-race neighborhood schools.

The superintendent argued, however, that the district's uniform curriculum and its emphasis on academics are so strong that any child can receive a good education at any school in the county, regardless of the student's race or that of his classmates. (In the past four years, the test scores of Duval County's students have moved from 62nd among Florida's 67 school districts to near the top.)

Benefits Outweigh Burdens

And now that the system has shored itself up academically and can offer high quality to all students, Mr. Sang contended, the educational benefits of neighborhood schools may outweigh the burdens of busing.

Many working parents, the superintendent said, cannot always see that their children arrive at the bus stop on time; as a result, many students who run a few minutes late in the morning miss entire days of school. "These kids can't afford to miss school," he added.

Furthermore, Mr. Sang said, the district's data show that students' achievement has a strong relationship to parental involvement in schools and to students' extracurricular activities.

"The farther away they live [from the schools], we find a direct decline in parental involvement and student involvement," Mr. Sang said. "It isn't the busing itself, it's the distance."

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