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N.J. Towns Seek Home-Grown Desegregation Plan

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If there were ever any doubts about how the school systems surrounding Englewood, N.J., felt about merging with their troubled neighbor, the events of last fall laid them firmly to rest.

In one northeastern New Jersey suburb, parents from a rainbow of ethnic groups marched through the streets chanting their opposition to a mandatory consolidation with Englewood.

In another, residents signaled their devotion to local control by adorning trees with orange ribbons--their high school's team color--in a tactic that some likened to burning crosses on lawns. And in hearings across eastern Bergen County, throngs of sign-waving residents warned state officials that they would fiercely resist any effort to desegregate Englewood's high school through forced regionalization.

Half a year later, the bitterness of those protests is not forgotten. But it has given way, at least in some quarters, to a new spirit of conciliation.

For the first time, communities that have fought in court for 11 years over desegregation of Englewood's Dwight Morrow High School are negotiating without lawyers in hopes of a voluntary solution.

Those communities are part of a task force of local officials that expects to complete a blueprint early next month for turning Dwight Morrow into a university-affiliated magnet school. Many hope the plan will restore racial balance to a school that years ago became nearly all African-American and Hispanic.

"We've made immense progress since those divisive days in October," said Alan Rein, the vice president of the Englewood Cliffs school board, which sparked the whole controversy a decade ago by trying to withdraw its students from Dwight Morrow. "We all think this holds great promise."

Well, not quite everyone. As the task force of school superintendents and board members seeks a home-grown, out-of-court solution, critics say their work is at best a waste of time, and at worst a cynical stalling tactic.

Charges of Racism

The conflict dates from 1985, when Englewood Cliffs, a 450-student K-8 district, moved to end an agreement to send its high school students to Englewood's Dwight Morrow High and to send them to nearby Tenafly High School instead.

Englewood resisted, and asked the state to merge the three districts at the high school level to end Dwight Morrow's racial isolation.

Although Englewood's population is about half white, 97 percent of Dwight Morrow's students are black or Hispanic. Most white families in the highly diverse community, where homes range from mansions to subsidized-housing projects, send their children to private schools.

Tenafly, like Englewood Cliffs, is a largely upper-middle-class community with schools that are predominantly white and Asian. Englewood and Tenafly are both K-12 districts with about 2,500 students each.

Over the years, the conflict between the three districts has evolved into a complex legal and governmental battle that has ping-ponged from the state courts to the state education department and back to the local level. It has also drawn in 17 surrounding communities that have been included in one proposal or another to integrate Dwight Morrow High School.

Aspects of the case have found their way to the state supreme court, but at no step of the judicial process has there been a ruling on the merits of forming a regional district. That question, or whether to seek some alternative solution, is now before state Commissioner of Education Leo F. Klagholz.

Meanwhile, even though a court order prohibits parents in Englewood Cliffs from sending their children to any other public high school in New Jersey, the number of students from that town at Dwight Morrow has dwindled to 11.

Englewood Cliffs officials say the poor educational quality at Dwight Morrow, which has the lowest standardized-test scores in Bergen County, is driving their students to private schools. Many people in Englewood contend that it is racism.

Mr. Klagholz is scheduled to receive two reports early next month as he prepares to recommend a solution to the state board of education in the coming months.

One is from officials in the state education department, who are exploring various proposals for reconfiguring Englewood and 19 other districts as well as other desegregation options such as magnet schools.

The other is from the task force of local officials. The group was formed in January after representatives of 18 potentially affected districts agreed to consider making Dwight Morrow a university-affiliated school designed to attract students from across the area.

The idea would be to make the school's core academic curriculum more rigorous, while creating several themed schools-within-a-school. In addition, Dwight Morrow would join forces with one or more colleges or universities to let students earn up to two years of college credit.

Some task force members, including Sherri Lippman, the Tenafly school board president, have high hopes for the concept. "I think it may actually be a landmark case," Ms. Lippman said. "It may be a new way of doing desegregation."

But others, especially in Englewood, harbor strong doubts. "It is nothing more or less than a magnet school dressed up with a name," said Agnes Rymer, a lawyer representing Englewood in the desegregation fight. "There is no guarantee that the Englewood board would support it."

Regionalization Proposal

Reflecting that sentiment, the Englewood school board recently insisted that the task force include a provision for mandatory consolidation in its plan.

If the proportion of whites or Asian-Americans in the proposed magnet school failed to exceed 30 percent after four years, the Englewood board said, then the school should be immediately merged with Englewood Cliffs and Tenafly "at the least." Task force members from other towns strongly oppose that demand.

Jay Doolan, the education department official who has been moderating the task force meetings, insists that neither Englewood's stance, nor any number of other stumbling blocks, will prevent the panel from forwarding a proposal to Mr. Klagholz next month.

"I think we're making tremendous progress," he said. "No one ever thought that we'd get this far."

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