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Court: Phila. Schools Need Not Bus Students For Desegregation

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The Philadelphia school district will not be forced to bus students to further racial desegregation, a Commonwealth Court judge has ruled.

In the opinion handed down this month, Judge Doris A. Smith also refused to order surrounding suburban school districts to join with Philadelphia in the creation of a large metropolitan school district.

Saying she lacked the authority to do so, the judge also denied the city's request to force the state to pay for additional desegregation remedies.

Both desegregation strategies sought in the lawsuit had met with fierce resistance throughout the area, generating a host of potential litigants and producing unlikely alliances.

A columnist for The Philadelphia Daily News, for instance, noted that African-Americans and Latinos had joined forces with whites to protest mandatory busing and to support community schools.

Judge Smith found that the plaintiff in the decades-old lawsuit, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, failed to prove that mandatory busing of the city's schoolchildren "would represent an appropriate or realistic measure'' to desegregate the schools.

She also said that the court lacked the authority to order neighboring districts to unite with Philadelphia.

Although Philadelphia school officials had opposed mandatory busing, they had proposed a merger of city and suburban schools.

Degrees of Relief

School officials throughout the area expressed relief over the court's ruling, although for far different reasons.

Asserting that the Philadelphia district had reached "maximum feasible desegregation,'' Rotan E. Lee, the president of the Philadelphia school board, said the focus should be on educational excellence, not mandatory busing.

"The central issue here is uniformity of excellence in education,'' Mr. Lee said. "While our efforts must expeditiously continue in this regard, we have established many pockets of excellence in schools at all grade levels, in all sections of Philadelphia.''

Meanwhile, Robert N. Dampman, the superintendent of schools in Bensalem, expressed satisfaction with the ruling that saved his district and 10 others from consolidation with Philadelphia.

"I don't think anybody really believed ... it was going to be approved,'' Mr. Dampman said.

Others, however, suggested that the court decision did not entirely rule out future consideration of a regional merger or state funding, possibly through legislative means.

Michael Churchill, a lawyer representing a coalition of parent and community groups that intervened in the case, said the judge recognized that busing was not the issue.

The ruling, said Mr. Churchill, "provides the opportunity to get the right issues on the table--educational quality and equality, which will affect the 60 percent of students trapped in racially isolated schools, rather than concentrating on whether we should move 2 percent more of the students in the system.''

About 80 percent of the district's 200,000 students are African-American, Latino, or Asian.

Michael Hardiman, the counsel for the state human-rights commission, said he was disappointed because the commission believes that busing is an effective means to achieve desegregation.

But William H. Brown 3rd, a lawyer for the school district, said the commission had based its mandatory-busing arguments on standards from 1979, without taking into account such factors as the growth in the Asian and Hispanic populations.

"Literally, in some cases where they found we had a segregated school, if we changed as little as two or three students, we would have been considered desegregated,'' Mr. Brown said.

As satisfied as Philadelphia officials were with the busing decision, they were disappointed that the judge did not compel the state to fund desegregation efforts or order the creation of a regional district.

"The future of public eduction is a regional future, and not one of an isolated urban school [system] juxtaposed to otherwise relatively small and considerably wealthier school districts,'' Mr. Lee said.


Staff Writer Karen Diegmueller contributed to this story.

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