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Bold Busing Plan Leads to Deep Divides in Wausau

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Wausau, Wis.

A bold school-busing plan intended to unite this mostly white and Southeast-Asian community appears instead to be tearing it apart.

Five school board members face recall this week because they supported the plan, which this fall has provided for six elementary schools to swap about half their students in an effort to more evenly distribute the district's enrollment of low-income and Southeast-Asian children.

The superintendent who engineered the plan has lost her job, and charges of racism and elitism were being hurled last week as this city of 36,000 wrestles with problems most residents could not have imagined a decade ago.

"The scars of this debate may be felt around this community for some period of time,'' said Berland A. Meyer, the Wausau school district's assistant superintendent for instructional services.

Hardships on Children Seen

More than 10,000 residents signed petitions calling for recall elections, even though the next regular district elections will be held in just four months.

Critics say the busing plan imposes hardships on children and their parents and could reduce parental involvement in schools.

"We believe we can find diversity within the neighborhood school system,'' said Debra Hadley, a member of the recall slate.

Defenders of the plan, meanwhile, have been organizing in support of the board members and warning that its reversal could lead to a civil-rights suit. Several Southeast-Asian residents, many of whom could not vote for lack of citizenship, were busy last week stuffing envelopes and passing out literature to help their cause.

"This district had changed dramatically, and it was time to take some action to provide equality of educational opportunity,'' said Richard F. Allen, the school board president.

Southeast-Asian refugees began moving into this overwhelmingly white area in north-central Wisconsin about 15 years ago, largely through resettlement programs run by Catholic and Lutheran charities. Most were Hmong, an ethnic groupthat was targeted by the Communist government of Vietnam because many of its members had collaborated with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency during the Vietnam War.

By the end of last school year, Southeast-Asians accounted for about a tenth of the Wausau district's residents, about 16 percent of its students, and nearly one in four of its entering kindergartners.

Because most of the new immigrants were concentrated in certain neighborhoods, the proportion of minorities in district schools ranged from less than 3 percent to more than 50 percent. Some schools experienced a loss of white students and were predicted to have almost entirely Hmong enrollments within five years.

Of the white children who remained in such schools, most were from low-income families drawn to the same central-city neighborhoods by the search for affordable housing.

Many of those students also appeared to suffer as a result of being placed in overwhelmingly Southeast-Asian classrooms, district officials said.

"The teacher had to slow down and spend a lot more time explaining very simple concepts, and that definitely slowed down the progress of the Anglo children,'' observed Ya M. Yang, who last spring became the first Hmong elected to the Wausau school board.

A Moral Imperative?

The school board last year decided it needed to disperse the district's low-income and Southeast-Asian populations to provide relief to such schools, boost student achievement, and unite a community that appeared to be becoming racially polarized.

"We weren't under a court order, but, morally and ethically, when you have identified the sources of racial disparities and differences, and how they are affecting education, you have an obligation to do something,'' Penelope J. Kleinhans, who was then the district's superintendent, said last week.

Ms. Kleinhans resigned under pressure last month, receiving a $142,000 severance payment.

In seeking to integrate low-income and Southeast-Asian children with the broader student population, Wausau was venturing into fairly new territory.

The only district to have done anything similar was nearby La Crosse, Wis. Confronted with similar concentrations of low-income and Southeast-Asian children, it last year redrew its school-attendance boundaries to more evenly distribute students who are eligible under federal guidelines for free school meals.

Or Moving Too Fast?

When the Wausau board began to discuss "partnering'' schools, the idea met spirited opposition from parents who claimed the board was moving too quickly and should keep neighborhoodschools intact.

Some defenders of the plan accused its foes of being motivated by racism.

"Which parents are doing more for the future of Wausau--the ones who want Wausau's kids to live together, or the ones who teach their children racial taunts while sending them to their 'neighborhood schools'?'' Dr. Jeffrey H. Lamont, a pediatrician, asked in a commentary in the Wausau Daily Herald.

Advocates of neighborhood schools called such charges unfair.

Of four incumbents who were up for re-election last April, three were voted out of office.

Nevertheless, the board settled on the partnering plan, arguing that it was the most cost-effective and educationally sound option. In June, it voted 6 to 3 to pair six elementary schools, turning three into K-2 centers and three into schools for the 3rd through 5th grades.

Among those voting for the plan was Mr. Yang, who last spring had been elected with the backing of neighborhood-school advocates. Although Mr. Yang said his family has been threatened as a result of his decision, he is protected by state law from being recalled during his first year in office.

600 Students Affected

Since the plan went into effect this fall, about 600 children have been bused up to 2.2 miles away from their neighborhood schools.

The plan has kept any school from having a minority enrollment of more than 32 percent, but has been partially blamed for a sharp drop in new enrollment and the loss of students to private schools.

Teachers have been generally supportive of the restructuring, especially in the schools affected. The Wausau Education Association formally came out in favor the plan last month after 80 percent of members surveyed voiced approval.

Most Hmong parents support the plan as a way to help their children assimilate, according to Yi Vang, the executive director of the Wausau Area Hmong Mutual Association. But only about 130 of them are eligible to vote.

The reaction from much of the public, however, has been strongly negative. According to a survey, 29 percent of residents agreed with the plan, while 58 percent disagreed.

Opponents contend that thepartner-schools plan has diluted the district's problems without addressing them. Ms. Hadley argued that the district could have integrated through other means, such as controlled choice or magnet schools, and would better address the needs of Southeast-Asians by hiring bilingual teachers.

Even some of those who favored the new plan said the current board mishandled its implementation. The Daily Herald last week declined to endorse Mr. Allen, the board's president, or Fred Prehn, its vice president, for that reason.

"In the same way you can't disenfranchise the 16 percent Southeast-Asian population, you can't disenfranchise the 58 percent of parents who favor neighborhood schools,'' said Sean Alwin, one of two independent candidates in the race.

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