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Voluntary Desegregation Plan Advances in St. Louis, Suburbs

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Lawyers for the St. Louis public schools, 23 suburban school districts, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (naacp) narrowly beat a court-imposed deadline and agreed to the terms of a comprehensive document last week that paves the way for the nation's first voluntary school-desegregation plan between a major American city and its suburbs.

The 70-page plan and its 270-page appen-dix were presented to U.S. District Judge William L. Hungate last Wednesday, less than an hour before the plan was due. It envisions the transfer of 15,000 black students from the city to predominantly white suburban schools by 1988, according to Gene Uram, chief desegregation planner for the city's schools.

The plan, which would go into effect next September, also calls for the establishment of new magnet schools and programs in both the city and the suburbs, the voluntary integration of teaching staffs, and the creation of a new coordinating committee to oversee its implementation.

The plan must now be approved by 22 of the 23 suburban districts' school boards. The city school board, the outlying Riverview Gardens board, and the naacp have already given it their approval.

The plan must also be reviewed and approved by Judge Hungate. The judge said that he would complete his review by no later than April 9.

The city's public schools, which enroll more than 58,000 students, are about 80-percent black, and about 31,000 black students in the city continue to attend predominantly single-race schools.

The population of suburban St. Louis County is about 70-percent white.

Long and Costly Trial

On March 25, Judge Hungate ordered the lawyers to draw up the document within five days or face a long and costly trial to determine the liability of eight suburban districts, the state of Missouri, and the St. Louis County government for segregation in the city school district.

The suburban districts, the state, and the county were originally scheduled to go to court on Feb. 16. Judge Hungate postponed that hearing, however, when D. Bruce LaPierre, the court-appointed "special master" in the case, informed him that the parties to the lawsuit had almost reached an out-of-court settlement but needed more time to work out its details. (See Education Week, Feb. 23, 1983.)

A week later, Mr. LaPierre reappeared before the judge, saying that all but one of the 23 suburban districts--the Riverview Gardens public schools--had reached an "agreement in principle" in the lawsuit. Judge Hungate then told Mr. La-Pierre and the school boards' lawyers to present him with a final plan no later than March 24.

On that day, Mr. LaPierre filed a one-paragraph document with the court, stating simply that a final agreement could not be reached.

"March 24 has come and gone and no such plan has been filed," Judge Hungate said in the order that he handed down the next day. He added that the court would look at the failure to reach the final agreement "as it would a great painting, in the best light possible."

"All we have had is an agreement in principle," he continued. "Principles, though persistant, can be fragile."

Judge Hungate then offered his "deepest thanks" to Mr. LaPierre and the lawyers. "For a moment, they gave us hope that this situation could be resolved by applying those civic principles that we all embrace but so seldom support," he said. "There are those whose outrage at the criticism of our Constitution is only exceeded by their dismay when they discover that it is to be enforced. In the end, we all join [the Pike County, Mo., resident] who once said, 'I am never selfish in principle--only in practice."'

Judge Hungate then gave the lawyers five more days to avoid the trial, which had been rescheduled to begin on April 11.

Board Reversed Vote

During those five days, the Riverview Gardens board, which only five weeks before had voted unanimously to reject the agreement in principle, reversed itself and voted again unanimously to accept the pact. According to persons close to the nego-tiations, civic and religious groups also applied heavy pressure on the negotiators to reach a final agreement.

"Well, we have a plan now, that's the most important thing," said Mr. Uram of the city's schools. "We can see problems in it, but honestly, I can't think of anything that could have come out of this that wouldn't have had any problems."

'Very Good Plan'

"In general, it's a very good plan," added William Taylor, director of the Center for National Policy Review in Washington and the lawyer for the naacp in the case. "It does not provide us with all of the relief that we might have retained had we gone through with a trial, but to offset that, we can see relief starting in September this year. That means that black students in St. Louis will not have to wait four or five years for the opportunity to attend desegregated schools."

According to Mr. Uram, the plan is divided into 12 main sections and addresses some of the following topics:

Desegregation Levels. Suburban districts with enrollments currently less than 25-percent black would be required to bring that percentage up to between 15 percent and 25 percent within the next five years.

Finance. The plan acknowledges that the school districts "do not have the resources necessary to fulfill their obligations under the agreement." Therefore, it requests that Judge Hungate hand down an order "to establish adequate funding" for its implementation.

Magnet Schools and Pro-grams. No more than 20,000 students would be served by such schools and programs under the plan. Of that number, no fewer than 12,000 would attend magnet schools in the city and no more than 8,000 would attend such schools in the suburbs. Enrollment in the magnet schools would be limited to a total of 7,000 high-school students, 4,700 middle-school students, and 5,200 elementary-school students. A six-member magnet-school committee would be established to oversee the programs.

General Oversight. A "voluntary interdistrict coordinating council" would be created to administer the student-transfer and voluntary-teacher-exchange provisions of the agreement. The council would be composed of one representative from each school system, one representative each from the naacp and from another group of citizen plaintiffs in the case, and one representative from the state education department's office of elementary and secondary education.

Teachers. Teachers would receive a "one-time-only" bonus for completion of one full year's service under the plan. They would remain employees of their home district, their tenure would not be affected by the transfer, and they would receive no compensation for travel to and from their new work site.

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