Published Online: February 19, 1997

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N.J. Chief Opposes Mandatory Desegregation Plan

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The New Jersey education commissioner has opposed a mandatory regionalization plan in eastern Bergen County, saying that forcing school districts to merge won't cure racial segregation.

The long-anticipated recommendation from Leo F. Klagholz suggested using extra state aid to improve the overwhelmingly minority Dwight Morrow High School in Englewood so that white students from neighboring districts would enroll there voluntarily.

"Ordering them to attend against their wishes would very likely increase the number of students choosing to attend private schools or move to a new community, thereby exacerbating the problem rather than solving it," Mr. Klagholz wrote in his Feb. 5 recommendation.

The opinion was a setback for the Englewood school board in its 11-year-old crusade to desegregate the region's schools by merging with the predominantly white Englewood Cliffs and Tenafly districts. ("N.J. Towns Seek Home-Grown Desegregation Plan," April 24, 1996.)

"In segregated schools, children are not being prepared for a global society, and they're not learning how to tolerate differences," Marion McKenzie, the chairwoman of the Englewood Parent Teacher Organization, said last week.

The state school board must now consider the recommendation, though no date has been set.

Mr. Klagholz's opposition to the regionalization plan was expected given the widespread public distaste for forced regionalization in a year in which Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, the Republican who appointed the education chief, is up for re-election.

Emotional Issue

The desegregation conflict started in 1985, when Englewood Cliffs, a 450-student K-8 district, asked the state commissioner if its students could go to Tenafly High School instead of Dwight Morrow. The Englewood district, which has about 2,500 students, opposed the request, saying the shift would increase racial disparities in the schools.

The emotionally charged issue spawned dozens of public hearings as it bounced among the courts, the state board, the education commissioner, and an outside consulting firm. The neighboring districts have vehemently opposed a merger, and the parents of most Englewood Cliffs high school students send their children to private schools.

That could change, according to Mr. Klagholz, if Englewood makes the most of a 62 percent increase in state aid this year. The funding hike includes nearly $2 million for new preschool and kindergarten programs in the district and $1 million for a magnet or similar special program at Dwight Morrow High.

"We're hoping Englewood will heed the recommendation and try to craft solutions for their school," said Abigail P. Wienshank, the president of the Englewood Cliffs school board.

Sherri Lippman, the school board president in the 2,500-student Tenafly district, agreed. "It's time for Englewood to give up the notion of forced regionalization and collaborate on something positive for their children," she said.

The commissioner's recommendation also drew praise from the Rev. John Spencer of the predominantly black First Baptist Church in Englewood, who noted that not all the town's leaders support the regionalization idea.

"I'd like to see an integrated school," he said, "but that's not a determining factor of quality."

The lawyer for the Englewood school board, Arnold Mytelka, would not comment on whether he would appeal if the state board affirms the commissioner's recommendation.

But, he added, "you've got to be a long-distance runner in a case like this."

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