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Hispanics Seek End to Desegregation Suit in Denver

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By Peter Schmidt Hispanic leaders in Denver are trying to broker a settlement to the city's decades-old school-desegregation lawsuit that could involve drastic cuts in or a total end to busing in exchange for bolstered academic programs.

In a Nov. 25 open letter, the 13 leaders challenged the city school board and the lawyers for the black and Hispanic plaintiffs in the case to reach an agreement and present it to the U.S. District Court in Denver by March 1.

The Hispanic leaders said they have held talks with their counterparts in the black community, adding, "It is our hope that they will join with us in the very near future."

Although their letter did not mention busing, signers of the document said in interviews last week that curtailing or ending the practice is definitely among their goals.

Historic Case The parties to the historic case-- Keyes v. School District No. 1, which in 1973 produced a U.S. Supreme Court decision that ushered in school desegregation in the North-- had not yet officially replied to the Hispanic leaders' letter as of late last week. But in interviews last week, their lawyers suggested that the sides remain far apart.

The Denver board has been trying to free itself from federal- court jurisdiction since 1984, and thus far its attempts have been adamantly opposed by lawyers for the minority plaintiffs. In the most recent phase of the case, the Supreme Court last February declined to review lower-court rulings that have kept the district under judicial oversight. (See Education Week, Feb. 27, 1991.)

"It is foolish to think that an end to the case could be negotiated that doesn't require the school system to do something meaningful, with some teeth," said Norman J. Chachkin, a lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which represents the black plaintiffs in the case.

Norma V. Cantu of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which represents the Hispanic plaintiffs, observed that the Hispanic leaders are calling for "an expansion of academic measures, not a cutting back." She said resolution of the case is unlikely until the district embraces school reforms that alleviate harm caused by segregation.

"We think the district has the final obligation to serve the educational needs of the students, and we don't believe that the district has done that," Ms. Cantu said.

Michael H. Jackson, the Denver board's lawyer, said the proposal "deserves consideration." But, he noted, previous attempts to negotiate a settlement have failed.

Saving Money

In their letter, the Hispanic leaders said they were prompted to act because they understand that the Denver board plans yet again to seek an end to federal-court supervision. "These efforts have cost the taxpayers and the children of Denver million of dollars in legal fees," they wrote.

In interviews last week, signers of the letter said their decision to advocate an end to busing was also driven by a desire to save money.

"Within the Hispanic community, there certainly is an agreement that there ought to be less busing," said Ken Salazar, the executive director of the state's natural-resources department and a leader of the Hispanic coalition.

When the Keyes case began, Hispanics represented only 20 percent to 30 percent of the district's enrollment and "we wanted to make sure we got out of our local communities," said Tony Montoya, who chairs Denver United Hispanic Groups, an umbrella organization comprising about 30 groups.

Now that Hispanics represent about 40 percent of the district's enrollment and blacks another 22 percent, Mr. Montoya said, "busing is not necessary, and the money could be better spent on educational purposes rather than transportation."

"We are not able to hire the number of bilingual teachers that we need," said Esther Romero, the president of the city's Congress of Hispanic Educators. "If there was a reduction in busing, then maybe there would be a budget for that."

The Hispanic leaders met with district officials last week to get assurances that the district would continue efforts to improve education for minorities if released from court supervision.

Leaders of African-American groups, meanwhile, were expected to meet this week to discuss the Hispanic leaders' proposal. Some leaders of black groups said they were willing to examine what, if any, gains minority students have made as a result of the Keyes case.

Gerie Grimes, the president of the Colorado Black Roundtable, said more emphasis should be placed on improving education for minority students, and less on busing.

"The whole decision needs to be re-evaluated," she said.

But the city's African-American community appears far less united than the Hispanic community on the call to end or reduce busing.

"Folks are talking all over the spectrum. We are not on the same page with this issue," said Sharon R. Bailey, a black member of the district's school board.

Mayor Wellington Webb, who is black, has endorsed the Hispanic leaders' call for a negotiated settlement.

But Thomas B. Jenkins, who is serving as the interim president of the Urban League of Metropolitan Denver, questioned why busing should be abandoned when blacks "are dealing now with the inequities that still exist under the Keyes case."

Asserting that Denver still segregates its schools through tracking and other mechanisms, Mr. Jenkins said, "We do not have an integrated, unitary system under a court order for 17 years. How can we come out from under a court order and get everyone to be nice and agree en a remedy?"

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