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La Crosse To Push Ahead With Income-Based Busing Plan

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The La Crosse, Wis., schools will go ahead this fall with a plan to bus elementary pupils based on family income, despite a new school-board majority that opposes the idea.

Rather than dismantle the plan in time for the new school year, the board voted 5 to 4 last week to survey the parents of elementary children to find out which schools they prefer.

The board made no promises to grant parents' wishes, but indicated that it would try to accommodate those who object to their children's assignments under the plan.

Voters in a recall election last month ousted four board members who had backed the plan, replacing them with candidates who pledged to lower taxes and to oppose busing for socioeconomic integration.

The four new members joined two others who defeated incumbents supporting the plan in regular board elections in April. The July recall election forced two other incumbents on the nine-member board into run-off elections to be held Aug. 11.

An organization called Recall Alliance earlier this year targeted for ouster the eight board members who voted in January to adopt the apparently unprecedented income-based student-assignment plan. (See Education Week, Oct. 30, 1991.)

Integrating Hmong Students

The board's decision to survey the parents of the district's 3,500 elementary students came after a tense two-hour meeting in which all 23 residents who addressed the board spoke in defense of the busing plan.

Thai Vue, a Hmong parent, received a standing ovation from a crowd of about 200 when he appealed to the board to continue the busing plan, which was primarily intended to disperse the district's population of poor Hmong students.

The previous board, asked to redraw the district's attendance boundaries to fill two new schools, had also taken the goal of socioeconomic balance into account when approving new boundaries in January.

At the time, the 29 percent of students who qualified for federally subsidized lunches were distributed unevenly. Their share of the enrollment in individual schools ranged from 4 percent to 68 percent.

Richard Swantz, the district's superintendent, had proposed redistributing low-income students so they would make up no fewer than 15 percent and no more than 50 percent of any school's population.

"We have strong racial segregation here and very poor test scores because of it,'' John D. Parkyn, the board's recently ousted president, said last week. He asserted that the district had been harming its mostly Hmong population of lower-income students by grouping them with pupils with the same backgrounds.

Of the 3,500 elementary pupils, about 1,600 are slated under the plan to be assigned to new schools, with about half being moved to fill new buildings and the others being moved for the sake of socioeconomic balance.

Douglas Farmer, a new board member, noted that incumbents had fared poorly in lower-income wards.

"The socioeconomic plan was supposedly going to help certain sections of the city,'' he said. "Those sections said, 'No, thank you,' very resoundingly.''

But Mr. Parkyn and Mr. Swantz maintained that the results reflected dissatisfaction with high taxes more than resistance to the plan.

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