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Merged Tenn. District Reaches Desegregation Accord

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Four years after the merger of the Knoxville, Tenn., school system and that of the surrounding county, the school board of the combined district last week adopted a controversial desegregation plan centered on school closings and consolidations.

By an 8-to-1 vote, the Knox County school board cleared the plan for delivery to the U.S. Education Department by a May 1 deadline.

The Education Department's office for civil rights has been investigating desegregation-related complaints and monitoring school-reform developments in Knox County.

The school board's plan, which has raised the wrath of local citizens and county commissioners who say it goes beyond what is needed to satisfy federal officials, calls for: closing 21 schools; opening 6, both new institutions housed in revamped older buildings and newly built facilities; establishing 5 magnet schools; changing attendance zones; and taking other actions to "integrate schools to the maximum extent possible" in the 50,000-student system.

The board said it would provide transportation for pupils changing schools as part of the plan, but it did not spell out the extent to which busing would be necessary.

Some problems targeted by the plan remain from before the 1987 combination of the two districts, according to A.L. Lotts, the chairman of the school board. For example, he said, several schools from the Knoxville city district were found to be in disrepair, with "all the differences in the world" between those schools and facilities of the former county system.

The cost of the plan, to be implemented by the end of 1994, is estimated at $45 million.

Complaints to the ocr in 1989 over staff assignments and student transfers--involving the exit of white students from schools and black students' transfers into them--are being resolved through steps already under way, officials of the civil-rights office and the district said last week.

The new plan imposes additional barriers to transfers, emphasizing that "transfers having a negative racial impact shall not be granted."

Critics of the plan contend that ending problems involving transfers and teacher assignments should suffice to meet civil-rights objectives.

But the school board sought more far-reaching action to reform the schools, Mr. Lotts said. "A lot of people think that was a stupid thing to do," he said. "I don't think so."

The board's original intention to send a plan to the ocr by last January foundered over citizen outcries over a draft plan late last year.

Dewey Roberts, president of the Knoxville branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said last week that the draft "would have more equally shared the burden of desegregation."

"Basically," he said, "we have some reservations about the new plan, about the school board's commitment to implementing it fairly."

As presented, Mr. Roberts said, the new plan "effectively takes away a school in the [black] community" and replaces it with a high school in a "neutral site," although many blacks would prefer a new school in their neighborhood.

Because of its reservations, Mr. Roberts said, the naacp this month asked the U.S. Justice Department to prevent the school system from implementing any changes until the Education Department can conduct a full review of the district's adherence to civil-rights laws.

In 1966, he said, a federal judge issued a desegregation order, updated in 1972, against the old Knoxville city district, "but they did not enforce it to any degree."

Mr. Lotts, the school-board chairman, acknowledged that the board has faced ongoing criticism that cuts across racial lines.

In part, the plan calls for building a new high school and closing high schools in adjacent neighborhoods, one with a 95 percent black enrollment and the other with a 75 percent white enrollment.

Mr. Roberts said the amount of busing under the new plan was not likely to increase a great deal, an assessment shared by others.

Under the plan, Mr. Lott said, "we'll have a parity as far as bused distances," with both black and white students being bused.

Some county commissioners, who note that they must authorize school spending, argue that the plan is objectionable to all races, will harm neighborhood schools, and sets the wrong priorities for spending.

Commissioner Mary Lou Horner said she favored spending the money on teacher salaries, supplies, and textbooks, rather than on new or revamped schools.

"I've got many parents who call and say that we don't need to put any more money into mortar and bricks," she said. "I'm hearing from black parents as well as white."

"I know that, up to this point, [the commission] has not been favorable to the [school] board's action," added Commissioner Billy Tindell. "We think [the board] went too far from what ocr was really looking for."

The 19 commissioners "do control the purse strings," he noted.

The commission's chairman, Leo Cooper, who is a public-school principal, said local criticism involves money worries as well as school closings and dissatisfaction with the prospect of building schools "to accommodate integration."

"The commission may not like it," countered Mr. Lotts, "but the commission doesn't have any power to do anything about the educational program under Tennessee law."

"In any event," he said, "we can do most of what we need to do with what we already have appropriated."

Mr. Lotts noted that the county already has approved spending about $76 million for school improvements.

"If there's enough money available in the school building fund," Mr. Cooper acknowledged, "it would appear that the school board could go ahead within parameters of their budget." But he added that he was "opposed to expending funds for additional buildings when in fact we could better utilize that money in the classroom."

He also said that "at no time in my understanding of the entire issue" have federal officials "demanded or required anything" except for ending civil-rights problems posed by the abuse of student transfers.

An ocr official in Washington said last week that the agency would review the plan with an eye toward pinpointing potential new civil-rights problems and in light of a complaint filed in January.

The complaint involved a school closing and purported non-comparability between majority-black and majority-white schools, the official said. Resolving it, he said, is not necessarily tied to endorsement of the new plan.

"We don't have to sign off" formally on the plan, he said. Rather, "once they decide to develop a plan, we would look at it to make sure there are no new [civil-rights] violations."

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