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Neighborhood-Schools Proposal in Pittsburgh Stirs Outcry

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Responding to a public outcry in Pittsburgh over a proposal to scrap most busing for racial integration, the president of the school board has vowed to either change the redistricting plan or shelve it and start over.

The prospect of a return to neighborhood schools there has prompted rallies and heated public testimony on both sides of the issue over the past two months.

As a result, board President Ronald L. Suber said recently that the plan, which was drafted by Superintendent Louise Brennan's staff under the board's direction, would not pass in its present form. Board members, who are divided over the plan, are scheduled to act on it April 30.

"We recognize the need to compromise--to seek common ground--and to find mutually acceptable solutions for key issues," Mr. Suber said.

African-American civil-rights leaders have called the proposal a blueprint for resegregation, and parents of students in the city's magnet schools see it as a threat to those specialized programs. But many white parents and politicians argue that it will strengthen neighborhoods and stem the flow of middle-class residents from the city.

The proposed redistricting would be the first big change in the 40,000-student district's desegregation plan since it started busing in 1980 to comply with a directive from a state court.

The proposal calls for creating nine school clusters, each anchored by a high school. Nearly a dozen new schools would be opened, some in former Roman Catholic schools and others in converted district-owned facilities.

The grade levels in several buildings would change, and though existing magnet programs would continue, some would move to make space for neighborhood schools. School officials say the proposal would largely pay for itself in savings on transportation.

Greater Segregation Feared

Critics of the plan cite projections that it would reduce the percentage of the district's students who attend schools that meet the state's definition of "racially balanced"--from the current 58 percent to 45 percent. School officials, however, say the proportion would likely be higher.

Despite the busing, some of the district's 87 schools are nearly all-black or all-white. About 55 percent of students districtwide are African-American; most of the rest are white.

Under the plan, schools with mostly poor black students would receive extra resources.

Superintendent Brennan could not be reached for comment last week.

A district spokeswoman, Patricia Crawford, said some board members basically supported the plan while others wanted to kill it. She acknowledged, however, that even its supporters thought it needed at least some changes.

Mr. Suber said that even if the board adopts some version of the plan, it will be phased in instead of fully implemented in the fall as proposed.

He said he couldn't predict what the nine-member board would do on April 30, but that it could split along racial lines, with white members favoring some version of the proposal and blacks opposing it. Three board members, including Mr. Suber, are African-American men; six are white women.

Meanwhile, members of the Pittsburgh Urban League, a leading critic of the proposal, intend to keep flooding the board with postcards and wearing buttons and T-shirts declaring "Resegregation is Not an Option," said Esther Bush, the group's president.

Supporters of the return to neighborhood schools are no less committed. City Councilman Daniel Onorato, who is white, predicted that the district would become nearly all African-American in 10 to 15 years unless the board scrapped forced integration.

"The worst-case scenario," he said, "would be if this plan fails and we do nothing."

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