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Appellate Ruling Lifts Integration Order in Boston

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In a landmark development in the Boston school-desegregation case, a federal appeals court last week struck down strict court-ordered racial guidelines for student assignments that the city's schools had been required to maintain "indefinitely."

The ruling returns control of the student-assignment process to the Boston School Committee for the first time since 1974, when U.S. District Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. first ordered the district to implement mandatory busing. Violent protests by parents during the initial year of busing drew national attention to the deep divisions among Boston's various ethnic communities.

The three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit stopped short of declaring the system "unitary," or legally desegregated.

But it ordered Judge Garrity to hold a hearing on the issue and outlined specific criteria that he must use in evaluating the district's progress in meeting the student assignment order. School officials last week applauded the ruling, but said the good news was overshadowed by a continuing strike by school-bus drivers that has prevented thousands of students from attending classes.

Representatives of the bus-drivers' union and the independent companies that hold contracts with the school system for student transportation were engaged in a 48-hour marathon negotiating session late last week.

The school committee also voted to begin hiring its own drivers if the marathon session failed to produce an agreement, and legal actions to halt the strike were proceeding on at least three fronts.

Schools 'Appear Desegregated'

In an opinion written by Chief Judge Levin H. Campbell, the three-judge appeals panel stated that school officials "appear ... to have made the schools as desegregated as possible given the realities of modern urban life."

The ruling overturns the most controversial provision of the final orders issued by Judge Garrity in September 1985, in which he removed the case from his "active" docket but retained jurisdiction over several areas, including student assignments. His final orders "indefinitely" restricted the school committee's authority to make changes in the student-assignment plan.

"I'm very pleased with the ruling," said Laval S. Wilson, who is beginning his third year as the district's superintendent. "At the time [Judge Garrity's] orders were appropriate, but the district's demographics have changed so much that we need more flexibility in our assignment process."

In 1970, 64 percent of the students enrolled in the city's public schools were white. By 1975, after the first year of busing, the proportion of whites had dropped to 48 percent, and it has now leveled off at about 25 percent.

During that same period, total enrollment fell from 96,000 to 57,000.

As a result, said Mr. Wilson, the district has been bound by the court order to bus students from predominantly black neighborhoods across the city to schools that are also predominantly black.

"We need to try to give parents more choices, and at same time keep the best racial balance possible," he said.

Even before the latest ruling, the school committee was scheduled to consider a student-assignment plan proposed by Mr. Wilson as part of his 16-point program for improving the schools. The school committee has approved 12 of his recommendations at least in part, but the student-assignment plan was seen as too politically volatile to adopt without extensive public hearings.

Under the superintendent's plan, parents would be able to rank their preferences from among several schools, although they would not be guaranteed their first choice. Each school's enrollment would have to remain within 10 percentage points of the district's overall racial proportions.

The latest ruling "does not mean4that the district can return to the way things were in 1972," said Michael Alves, an official with the state's bureau of equal educational opportunity. "If a judge lifts a wife-beating injunction because you've behaved for several years, that doesn't mean you can go back and beat your wife."

Last week's ruling demonstrates that the "appeals court understands that the school committee and the superintendent are clearly committed to maintaining the gains made in Boston in the past 12 years," said Mr. Wilson.

Attracted National Attention

The Boston desegregation case helped focus the nation's attention on racial tensions in the North, following a decade when the sight of uniformed men escorting children to school was associated largely with the South.

Black parents represented by the naacp first filed a lawsuit seeking to desegregate the Boston schools in 1965, but it was quickly withdrawn after the Massachusetts legislature adopted a "racial-imbalance" law.

The divided city was unable to negotiate a desegregation plan that was acceptable to all parties, so in 1972 several community groups, represented by naacp lawyers, filed the suit in which last week's ruling was only the latest of several hundred.

Implementation of the interim busing order issued by Judge Garrity in 1974 was marked by stormy confrontations between white and black adults and students. The current busing plan, which had more extensive white reassignment than any other such plan in the country, was ordered in 1975.

At the height of the dispute, the opposing sides appeared in court an average of once every two to three weeks to battle over issues "like the level of the budget for parent councils or whether the school committee could change" the job classification of guidance counselors, said Robert Blumenthal, a lawyer for the state board of education who has been involved in the case for more than nine years.

Despite evidence that scars remain, many Bostonians argue that residents have undergone a major transformation in their racial attitudes during this decade.

Mr. Wilson keeps two photo collages on his office wall to remind him of the differences.

"In 1975, you saw youngsters looking out of school buses with windows cracked by rocks, you saw racial epithets written on the sidewalks, and you saw students running after each other with hatred in their eyes," he recalled. "There was a great deal of turmoil."

"Now we have good racial relations, as much as you can expect in an urban center, where you always have some tensions between ethnic groups," he said. "There's been a major improvement in the racial climate."

Lingering End

Judge Garrity, who has overseen the case since its inception, began to relinquish some of his tight control over the school system in 1982, but even last week's ruling is far from the last step needed to disentangle the federal courts completely from the operation of the Boston school system.

The judge was directed by the appeals court to hold a further hearing to determine if the district should be declared fully desegregated, which would free it from any further legal requirements unless it could be proven in a future trial that new student-assignment policies were motivated by an intent to separate the races.

The appeals court set down three criteria for the district court to use in ruling on Boston's plea for unitary status: whether the district has an impermissible number of one-race schools; whether the school defendants have exhibited a history of good faith that would forestall a return to unconstitutional conditions; and whether the goal of "maximum practicable desegregation" has been reached.

But the panel also wrote: "As we have demonstrated, the record before us suggests that the schools have attained unitary status in student assignments."

If in his hearing, which has yet to be scheduled, Judge Garrity finds that the school system has not achieved unitary status, the appeals court authorized him to enter the same or a different remedial order for school assignments.

Judge Garrity "has shown tremendous respect for the opinions of the First Circuit, and will follow their guidelines precisely," predicted Mr. Blumenthal, the state's lawyer.

Remaining Restrictions

In last week's ruling, the appeals court also denied a motion by the Boston Teachers Union to end Judge Garrity's order that requires the school committee to practice affirmative action in hiring until the district's faculty and staff consist of not less than 25 percent black and 10 percent other minority personnel.

In addition, it ruled moot a motion by city officials to terminate an order requiring them to develop a facilities-maintenance plan; the appellate panel said the plan had already been substantially completed.

Five other provisions of Judge Garrity's final orders also remain in effect, ranging from one that governs the formation and operation of parent and student organizations to one that generally forbids racial discrimination in the district's policies. An order governing modifications to the plan requires the district to give 90 days' notice to all parties in the lawsuit before making any changes, and sets down a resolution process in cases of disagreement.

Lawyers for the black and Hispanic plaintiffs in the case were not available last week to comment on whether they will oppose the district's bid for unitary status.

Thomas I. Atkins, a lawyer for the black plaintiffs, has said in previous interviews with Education Week that the district has made "considerable progress," but that unitary status should not be granted as long as some of the district's schools remain racially identifiable. The appeals court noted that 13 of the district's 118 schools have enrollments that are more than 80 percent single-race; 8 schools are predominately black and 5 are predominately white.

Marathon Negotiations

The strike by 650 Boston school-bus drivers against the companies that hold the city's student-transportation contracts has added another wrinkle to the case.

Lawyers for the black plaintiffs filed a motion asking Judge Garrity to declare the strike illegal because it prevented the district from meeting the court's desegregation orders.

Following a hearing last week, Judge Garrity appointed a former municipal-court judge, Margaret Burnham, to monitor the ongoing negotiations, and reserved the right to order continuous negotiations or binding arbitration.

As of the middle of last week, 68 percent of the 27,000 students normally bused to school were attending classes, up from 39 percent on the second day of the strike, according to Ian Forman, a spokesman for the district.

Pressure for a settlement was increased by several actions last week.

On Tuesday, the school committee adopted a three-step plan to end the strike. The first step, an offer to submit to binding arbitration, was immediately rejected by the bus drivers' union.

The second step was a proposal for 48 hours of round-the-clock negotiations, which commenced on Thursday.

If that fails, the School Department is authorized to begin hiring its own bus drivers, giving preference to the striking workers. As public employees, the drivers would be prohibited from striking under state law.

In addition, plaintiffs in an ongoing lawsuit involving the district's special-education programs have asked a state court to enforce the students' right to receive transportation under state law.

Finally, the state's attorney general was considering asking the chief judge of the Massachusetts Superior Court to intervene in the strike, according to Mr. Blumenthal.

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