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Palm Beach Desegregation Strategy Falls Short

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The Palm Beach County, Fla., school system is rethinking its experiment with a novel desegregation strategy: exempting integrated new housing developments from forced busing.

The approach has proved far less effective than hoped, district officials said last week, adding that it likely will be overhauled or abandoned.

The 127,000-student district had sought to promote the racial integration of housing and schools through the use of "interlocal agreements" between the school system, local communities, and housing developers. The pacts provided that, as long as new housing developments met certain racial-integration guidelines, the children of their residents would be exempted from the district's mandatory-busing program and could attend neighborhood schools.

While many developers cited the agreements in marketing their homes, few followed through on their promises to insure that the subdivisions would be integrated, according to district officials. The residents of the developments were shocked and angered when they learned that their children, therefore, would not be allowed to attend nearby public schools.

"We have had some developers, primarily in the south part of the county, who have signed the agreements only as part of marketing their homes," said Larry G. Zabik, who has overseen the implementation of the agreements as the district's assistant superintendent for support services.

"We found that developers were lying to potential homebuyers about where children would attend schools and how long their children would attend those schools," Mr. Zabik said.

Developers have contended that the agreements obliged them only to try to recruit minority residents, not to quickly meet specific quotas.

"There are a lot of builders who have tried very hard to integrate their communities," said Marsha Myers, the executive director of the Gold Coast Builders Association, which represents the local industry. But, she added, "the fact that people cannot be forced to move into a community that they do not want to move into is not the fault of the builder."

Revised Plan to O.C.R.

The district omitted any reference to the agreements in a revised school-integration plan submitted last month to the U.S. Education Department's office for civil rights. That office has never formally endorsed the district's interlocal agreements as a viable integration strategy.

The district's revised integration plan, drafted with the assistance of O.C.R. lawyers, mainly proposes using federally financed magnet programs to bring white children into several district schools that are overwhelmingly black.

The district had been declared unitary, or free of the vestiges of school segregation, two decades ago. In 1990, however, an O.C.R. probe determined that the dis~~trict's school populations and teaching staffs had become racially imbalanced and that the district had worsened the problem through its decisions on where to put schools. The O.C.R. also found that the district had discriminated against black children by inequitably financing their schools and asking them to shoulder most of the burden imposed by mandatory busing for racial balance.

The district responded by drafting a plan to remedy the alleged violations, with the deadline set for next month. It agreed that black students would account for no fewer than 6 percent and no more than 40 percent of students in schools other than those in the Glades, a remote, heavily minority area of the district.

Faced with a growing population, the district came up with the interlocal agreements as a means of insuring that any new development would help its efforts. The district's approach drew national attention, and about 15 agreements were signed in Palm Beach County in the first year. (See Education Week, 2/26/92.)

As of last month, 46 such agreements involving more than a dozen developers were in place, but only six of the communities involved were found by the district to have complied with its integration requirements.

The district has done little so far to enforce compliance, and only now has begun to try to strengthen the agreements to hold developers accountable, Mr. Zabik, the assistant superintendent, said.

Charles Collins, the director of minority and women's business programs for the Palm Beach County government, said last week that the district had erred in trusting developers to promote integration.

"They have little or no idea about the dynamics of racially balanced communities," said Mr. Collins, a former official of the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department.

Focus on Magnets

Last fall, O.C.R. officials told the district that nine of its 124 schools still had too many or too few black teachers and that 56 schools remained outside the district's guidelines for racial balance. Although black children make up 28 percent of the district's enrollment, they accounted for more than 90 percent of the students at seven schools, the federal compliance monitors noted.

District officials have contended that their efforts to integrate the district have been hindered by its explosive growth, with about 5,000 students being added each year. Critics of the district have blamed mismanagement for such failures. (See related story .)

The district's revised plan focuses on using magnet programs to direct resources and draw white students into the seven overwhelmingly black schools cited by the O.C.R.

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