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O.C.R.'s Proposed Settlement In Race-Bias Case Critized

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WASHINGTON--The Education Department's office for civil rights is preparing to close a longstanding desegregation case against the Fort Wayne, Ind., public schools by accepting a settlement that was previously rejected by a group of parents who filed a separate suit against the district last year.

The settlement under consideration calls for the closing of one predominantly black elementary school, and the transformation of at least one majority-white and three majority-black schools into magnet schools by the 1990-91 school year.

Although spokesmen for the district and the O.C.R. said they are pleased with the agreement, a lawyer for the parents' group charged that it provides "no guarantees of any kind that desegregation will actually take place.''

The lawyer, William Taylor of the Center for National Policy Review in Washington, added that the plan would place an undue burden for achieving desegregation on black families.

Case Background

The O.C.R. began investigating charges of segregation in the Fort Wayne schools in the late 1960's, but did not issue a finding in the case until 1984. It was one of many investigations a federal district judge ordered the agency to resolve as part of the litigation now known as Adams v. Bennett.

In its 1984 report, the O.C.R. concluded that the district had segregated students in 22 of its 36 elementary schools by gerrymandering attendance boundaries, and by failing to "utilize less discriminatory alternatives.''

While the district's overall enrollment is about 22 percent black, the O.C.R. found that five elementary schools were more than 80 percent black, and eight others were more than 97 percent white. The elementary schools serve about 14,000 students.

The district denied the charges of intentional segregation, but began negotiating a settlement with the O.C.R.

Not satisfied with the case's progress, the parents represented by Mr. Taylor filed their suit last year in federal district court, where it has not yet been tried. Mr. Taylor said that his clients were presented last month with the settlement that the O.C.R. is poised to approve, but that they found it unacceptable.

Declining Enrollment

Fort Wayne school officials said the predominantly black school that would be closed under the proposed settlement has been plagued by declining enrollment, and may be closed even in the absence of desegregation efforts.

The proposal does not specify which schools would be converted into magnet schools. It would allow local officials to select 3 schools from among 5 that now have enrollments that are more than 75 percent black, and 1 from among 17 that have enrollments that are more than 90 percent white.

The plan would also require the district to open magnet programs designed to attract black students in six additional predominantly white schools. Three of the schools eventually could be converted into full-fledged magnet schools, drawing students from across the district. The remaining three schools would continue to enroll white students from their surrounding neighborhoods.

An additional predominantly black elementary school would institute a special remedial curriculum under the settlement.

Parents' Criticisms

Mr. Taylor said the agreement would place most of the burden of desegregation on black students. He noted that students who are not accepted into new magnet programs at their former neighborhood schools would be forced to transfer to new schools.

In contrast, he continued, because only one predominantly white school would become a magnet school, few white students would be reassigned unless their parents chose to participate in a magnet program. "If no white parents send their kids to these [magnet] schools, they will remain segregated,'' he said.

Mr. Taylor said his clients will continue to press in court for a settlement that guarantees integration of all Fort Wayne elementary schools through "whatever means are appropriate and equitable.'' He said that his clients have not ruled out the use of magnet schools, provided that the burden of student reassignment is distributed equitably between black and white neighborhoods, and that the magnets are only one part of a comprehensive desegregation effort.

District's Response

"No plan will work if nobody participates,'' said Dana Wichern, a spokesman for the district. "It's important that the program is voluntary. We have thousands of letters on file from parents asking for voluntary programs. This community will accept that.''

John Walters, the district's lawyer, agreed that the voluntary plan contains no guarantees. "But you're dealing with a community that has a very good track record of voluntary racial balance and where racial imbalance that does exist is not the result of intentional segregation,'' he said.

Mr. Walters noted that the district maintains racial balance in its high schools and intermediate schools through busing and that more than 600 elementary students attend an existing integrated magnet school.

As to the issue of where the burden lies, he said, "that is not a legitimate argument, and it has been rejected by the courts.''

In order to approximate the racial mix of the district as a whole in as many schools as possible, Mr. Taylor said, many students must be moved from the black-dominated inner-city schools, regardless of the mechanism chosen. "We are trying to create a maximum number of attractive alternatives so that its not a burden'' to change schools, he said.

Gary Curran, a spokesman for the O.C.R., said he could not comment on the plan's details because they are still being worked out. He noted, however, that the office considers the progress to date "a positive step forward.''

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