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Merger of 3 Districts for Desegregation Refused

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Cincinnati--A federal appeals court upheld a desegregation plan for three Michigan school districts last week, but refused to force the districts to merge to combat racial imbalance.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit agreed that officials of the predominantly white Coloma and Eau Claire schools promoted "white flight" from the largely black Benton Harbor schools by taking white transfers from the district. But the court held that those acts were not substantial enough to compel consolidation of the three districts.

Benton Harbor officials and the naacp had asked for the merger, saying the current busing order is not doing enough to desegregate schools. In addition, Benton Harbor officials had hoped the merger would force the two other districts to share more of the costs of desegregation.

The apellate court ruling by Judges George Edwards, Harry Phillips, and John Peck basically upholds a desegregation plan ordered in May, 1981 by U.S. District Judge Douglas Hillman.

Judge Hillman ordered Benton Harbor to bus students to neighbor-ing districts to bring the proportional enrollment of minority and white children in the city's elementary schools to within 10 percent of their proportions in the city's population. Benton Harbor is 77 percent black.

Judge Hillman also barred Coloma and Eau Claire from accepting Benton Harbor students if their transfers contributed to racial imbalance in the districts.

Officials in Coloma and Eau Claire--two middle-income suburbs--had asked that their districts be dropped from the desegregation case. But the appeals court rejected their argument that they had done nothing to contribute to segregated schools in the area.

The court noted that more than 150 white Benton Harbor students had transfered to Coloma in recent years, contributing to racial imbalance.

While suburban officials asked for a reduction of busing, those in Benton Harbor asked for a complete merger of the three districts in order to stop what Benton Harbor Superintendent James Hawkins termed "a one-way street out of the city."

"Under the current busing plan, we've got 25 kids coming in and 550 going out of Benton Harbor," Mr. Hawkins said. "We were hoping for a more equitable siutation."

The district's tax base is also a problem. Currently, Benton Harbor ranks 558th among Michigan's 570 school districts in the amount of property value backing each student. The two other districts rank near the state average.

The ruling also displeased Michigan state officials, who were upset that Judge Hillman had found them partially responsible for Benton Harbor's segregation because they had approved some student transfers. The appeals court upheld Judge Hillman's decision, rejecting the state's argument that the transfers were made for "sound educational reasons." The court also rejected the plea of 75 Benton Harbor parents who wanted their property transferred to the Eau Claire district.

The Benton Harbor case dates back to 1967, when the naacp filed suit against the district. The two suburban districts were later added as defendents.

In 1978, U.S. District Judge Noel Fox ordered the three districts merged to combat the flight of white students from Benton Harbor. Soon after that, however, Judge Fox's ill health forced him to retire, and Judge Hillman assumed jurisdiction. Judge Hillman stayed the merger, instead drafting his own desegregation plan.

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