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Five on Wausau Board Voted Out Over Busing Stands

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Voters in Wausau, Wis., have tossed out five school board members for implementing a busing program designed to more evenly distribute poor and minority students.

The five were trounced in recall elections held last month by a slate of challengers opposed to the busing plan. The incumbents took only one of Wausau's 12 precincts, and none garnered more than 43 percent of the vote.

Even so, efforts to dismantle the busing program, which was implemented last fall, could face legal obstacles.

Ya M. Yang, the only supporter of the busing plan remaining on the board, said he may seek an injunction to prevent the district from returning to neighborhood schools.

In addition, the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin last month threatened to sue the Wausau board if it takes actions that make the district's schools more segregated.

The board also was put on notice by Gary R. McCarten, the lawyer for a group of local parents.

"A hasty reversion to a segregated plan would cause upheaval in the community and would be met with immediate legal ramifications,'' Mr. McCarten warned in a letter.

Scott R. Williams, a recall-slate leader who last week was named as the new board president, has pledged to try to mend the deep divisions created by the busing controversy in the city of 36,000. (See Education Week, Dec. 15, 1993.)

"We are going to attempt to find some middle ground if we can,'' Mr. Williams said in an interview.

The busing program in the 8,800-student district, which has few black or Hispanic students, was designed to promote the integration of children from poor or Southeast-Asian families.

Housing Patterns

Southeast-Asian children, mostly from Hmong refugee families resettled by church groups, account for 16 percent of the district's overall enrollment and nearly a quarter of its entering kindergarten students. Because of housing patterns, the students were heavily concentrated in a few schools, which also tended to enroll disproportionate numbers of low-income white children, many with special needs.

Responding to teachers and principals in those schools, who complained of being overwhelmed, the Wausau board last year devised a plan to restructure six elementary schools in order to reduce racial disparities.

When the the plan was implemented last fall, 600 children were bused up to 2.2 miles away from their neighborhood schools. No school was left with a minority enrollment of more than 32 percent.

Although most teachers were supportive, parents rebelled and collected 10,000 signatures calling for recall elections.

The campaign leading up to the election last month was a heated one focused almost solely on the busing issue. Supporters of the busing plan accused the recall slate of racism, while the challengers depicted the incumbents as social engineers out of touch with their constituents.

The busing issue appeared to be uppermost in voters' minds as well, with all of the members of each slate garnering similar percentages and two independent candidates faring poorly.

Mr. Yang, the board's only Hmong member, could not be recalled under state law because he had been in office less than a year.

The board's composition could change again in April, when three recall-slate members must run again in regular board elections.

La Crosse Debate

So far, the situation in Wausau is similar to the experience of La Crosse, Wis., which implemented a similar socioeconomic-busing program in 1992.

There too, opposition swelled after the school board approved changes in school-attendance boundaries designed to more evenly distribute low-income students, most of whom were Southeast Asians.

Recall elections in La Crosse led to the ouster of seven board members.

Nevertheless, the new board did not try to dismantle the plan, which now appears to have solidified its public support. Three of the leading recall candidates lost in regular elections held soon after they took office. (See Education Week, Aug. 5, 1992.)

District officials last month said the plan has not affected student achievement. They maintained, however, that boosting achievement was never one of the integration plan's goals.

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