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R.I. District Bucks Demand To Reassign Students

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The Pawtucket, R.I., school district was facing the loss of state aid and other sanctions last week over the school board's refusal to reassign students for racial integration.

School board members vowed, meanwhile, to challenge the state in court if it moved to enforce the Rhode Island board of regents' policy requiring that all public schools meet certain racial-balance guidelines.

"There is nothing gained in busing a child because of his ethnic background," Paul J. Wildenhain, the chairman of the Pawtucket school committee, said last week.

The dispute arises from a requirement, passed by the regents in 1970, calling for all schools in a district to have minority enrollments within 10 percentage points of the district average, regardless of whether the district had engaged in deliberate racial segregation.

Ten of the 15 public schools in Pawtucket fail to meet the state guidelines. Minority enrollment in the 9,000-student district is 29 percent, but individual schools have minority populations ranging from 16 percent to 52 percent. The Pawtucket board had agreed last year to establish magnet schools and other voluntary desegregation programs as part of a plan to redistribute students.

Since then, however, board members have accused the state of coercing them into the agreement and then refusing to help pay the estimated $220,000 a year to implement it. They also have questioned the legality of the regents' guidelines. Last month, the local board informed the state that it had reversed itself.

"The policy is absolutely arbitrary, capricious, costly, destructive, and divisive, and it has no educational benefit whatsoever," Gerald B. Resnick, the deputy chairman of the school board, said last week.

Frank R. Walker, the director of the state education department's office of equity and access, said the state has no choice but to hold administrative hearings to weigh whether it should impose sanctions. If it chooses, the state can cut off the district's aid, earmark funds specifically for desegregation, or appoint an outsider to oversee desegregation efforts.

Neighborhood Schools

Pawtucket has long had several schools out of compliance with the state's enrollment guidelines, but the situation has worsened in recent years with the influx of immigrants from Central America and African nations such as Cape Verde.

In 1993, the state found the district in violation of its enrollment guidelines and directed it to come up with a plan to address the problem. In response, a 52-member task force of community representatives devised the 18-point school-desegregation and -improvement plan that the board voted 5 to 2 to adopt last June.

Along with calling for new student-assignment policies to promote voluntary integration, the plan outlined several education reforms, such as improvements in the district's testing and guidance programs, designed to boost minority achievement.

Although the Pawtucket board continues to embrace the 16 points of the plan dealing with education reform, it began almost immediately to retreat from the student-assignment provisions.

Brian J. Kelly, a school committee member, said he soured on the plan when he realized that some children might be prevented from attending their neighborhood schools so that those schools could be kept in racial balance. He said last week that both minority and white parents in the district have asked that their children remain in the schools closest to home.

Mr. Wildenhain said last week that the district should not be asked to remedy segregated housing patterns beyond its control.

State officials, meanwhile, have suggested that they may in fact have a case for proving that the school board deliberately acted in ways that increased racial segregation in the district's schools.

Last week, several of Rhode Island's civil-rights organizations held a news conference to denounce the actions of the all-white Pawtucket board, whose seven members were picked in at-large elections in which minorities had relatively little influence.

"The minority community has finally gotten to the point where we are saying enough is enough," said David R. Azevedo, the vice chairman of a community group called People Organizing Neighborhoods to Excel.

"They are trying to keep the white, middle-class schools as white as possible," he said, adding that "very little attention is being paid to the minority schools."

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