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U.S. Judge Orders Voluntary Integration Plan for Savannah

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In an opinion that sharply attacks mandatory student busing as a remedy for racial discrimination, a federal judge has ruled that the Savannah-Chatham County, Ga., school board may replace its 16-year-old busing plan with one that may be the first in the nation to rely on purely voluntary desegregation measures.

"While clearly the simplest and cheapest technique available, pairing and busing has failed and in fact may be the root of significant damage to the schools,'' U.S. District Judge B. Avant Edenfield said in his 60-page opinion.

"This court,'' he wrote, "refuses to rely on a desegregation technique that will serve to destroy the very school system that it is intended to save.''

The judge approved a plan proposed by the school board under which most of the district's 30,000 students will attend neighborhood schools whose attendance boundaries have been redrawn to maximize racial balance in enrollments.

The new plan will rely on magnet programs to attract whites to predominantly black schools and on minority-to-majority transfers to attract blacks to predominantly white schools.

Both the U.S. Justice Department and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund had argued that the voluntary student-assignment plan proposed by the board of education should be backed up by a mandatory plan, because no other school district in the country has relied exclusively on voluntary desegregation techniques.

"To have such an alternative in place would send a negative signal to parents,'' Judge Edenfield responded in his opinion. If parents think that enrolling in the school district involves the risk of "forced busing,'' he added, "such a mandatory backup plan could easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy.''

'White Flight' Cited

Relying on evidence presented by witnesses for the school board, Judge Edenfield agreed that "white flight'' had undermined the current busing plan and had to be avoided in the new plan.

Over the plaintiffs' objections, the judge used this argument in part to justify allowing the school board to maintain all-black classrooms in schools that would be desegregated over all due to the presence of self-contained magnet programs.

If the magnet and nonmagnet students were forced to mix in nonmagnet classes, he wrote, "this would serve to attract many fewer students--particularly many fewer white students--to these magnet programs.''

Moreover, he added, school officials convincingly argued that keeping the magnet and nonmagnet schools' students separated for all academic classes would result in a superior educational program.

"On that rationale, any school system in the country could resegregate their classes,'' said Norman Chachkin, a lawyer with the Legal Defense Fund. Mr. Chachkin said the fund would appeal the decision.

"We're much more concerned about the separate classes for blacks than the lack of a mandatory back-up plan,'' he said.

A more comprehensive, long-range plan that all parties to the case had accepted last year will not be implemented because local voters defeated the tax levy needed to finance the extensive school construction and renovation projects that it would have required.

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