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Judge Reduces Control Over Denver's Schools

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A 28-year school-desegregation suit in Denver--which yielded a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1973--drew a step closer to resolution this month when a federal district judge issued an interim decree reducing his control over the district's student-assignment process.

In an order handed down on Oct. 6, U.S. District Judge Richard P. Matsch indicated that the Denver board had made a sufficient commitment to remedy racial isolation in its schools, thus warranting his gradual withdrawal of control over the 60,000-student district.

Approximately 37 percent of the districts's students are white, 36 percent are Latino, and 23 percent are black.

Judge Matsch's interim decree lifts previous student-integration orders he has entered in the case, Keyes v. School District No. 1.

At a Nov. 13 hearing he is expected to announce the start of a yet-indeterminate trial period, during which time the Denver board will exercise unrestrained decisionmaking authority regarding attendance zones, magnet schools and programs, school pairings, grade-level structure, and school construction and closings.

Other prior orders, including those affecting faculty integration, limited-English-proficient children, and community involvement in schools, will remain in force during the trial period.

The judge said that during the life of the interim decree, the district must demonstrate that students of all races and ethnicities have an opportunity to attend schools "of like quality, facilities, and staff."

"When that has been done, the remedial stage of this case will be concluded and a final decree will be entered to give guidance for the future," Judge Matsch wrote.

The judge said his goal was "to develop a decree which strikes a balance between rigidity and vagueness" and gives district officials "greater freedom to respond to changing circumstances and developing needs in the educational system."

It would be unwise, he noted, to fashion a new order that would "stifle the creative energy of those who plan, supervise, and operate the district, or to supplant their authority to govern."

The Denver suit was among the first in the nation to allege unconstitutional segregation in a major Northern city.

In 1973, the Supreme Court ruled that although the separation ofraces was never mandated by law in Colorado, as in Southern states, a lengthy pattern of school-board decisions regarding construction, attendance zones, and mobile-classroom units in some parts of the city provided sufficient evidence for a finding of illegal segregation throughout the entire district.

That decision helped pave the way for federal courts to order desegregation plans in other Northern cities such as Boston, Buffalo, Columbus, Detroit, Indianapolis, and Las Vegas.

Busing began in Denver in 1974, and was followed by an exodus of white students from the district. In recent years, the city board had sought unsuccessfully to have Judge Matsch declare the district fully desegregated, or unitary, and to lift all orders in the suit.

Michael Jackson, the Denver board's lawyer, declined several requests last week to comment on Judge Matsch's decree. James Scanlon, the superintendent, and Edward J. Garner, the board president, were also unavailable for comment.

James M. Nabrit 3rd, a lawyer for the naacp Legal Defense Fund, which is representing the black plaintiffs in the case, said his clients would have preferred a more detailed order, but considered Judge Matsch's decree "acceptable."

Other Activity

In related developments:

A desegregation suit filed by the federal government against the Charleston County, S.C., public schools during the waning days of the Carter Administration finally went to trial this month.

The Justice Department, under the direction of President Reagan, is seeking a court order requiring the 43,000-student district to adopt voluntary integration remedies, such as magnet schools and enrichment programs for students in predominantly minority schools. The trial before U.S. District Judge Sol Blatt Jr. is expected to last up to two months.

A lawyer representing suburban districts in the Kansas City, Mo., region said his clients are willing to discuss the possibility of participating in a voluntary integration program with the city district now that legally enforced participation has been ruled out.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court turned down a request by the Kansas City board and black families in the city to review lower- court decisions that relieved the 11 suburban districts of liability for segregation in the city district.

The superintendent of schools in St. Paul, Minn., has asked Gov. Rudy Perpich to search for new ways to desegregate the state's urban districts.

In a letter to the Governor late last month, David Bennett, the city's superintendent, noted that "from past experience of other urban school districts throughout our nation, we know that there are limits on what urban districts can do alone to implement their states' desegregation goals."

In the letter, Mr. Bennett noted that St. Paul's minority enrollment had increased from about 6 percent in 1959 to 36 percent in 1986. "In contrast, suburban districts in the Twin Cities area in 1986 had a minority student enrollment of 5.4 percent collectively," he wrote.

Mr. Bennett suggested that the state consider implementing a program to encourage voluntary inter-district integration plans similar to those in St. Louis and Milwaukee.

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