Published Online: March 12, 1997

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Judge Spurns Indianapolis Bid To Recover Bused Students

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The Indianapolis schools last week appealed a federal judge's rejection of the district's bid to bring home 5,500 black students who are bused to the suburbs under a 16-year-old court order.

U.S. District Judge S. Hugh Dillin ruled Feb. 27 that the arrangement that sends black students from within the city district's boundaries to one of six predominantly white townships should continue permanently.

Although those suburbs originally resisted Judge Dillin's orders to accept inner-city black students, they are now fighting to keep them.

"It's extraordinarily ironic," remarked David R. Day, a lawyer for two of the townships, Lawrence and Warren. "But as the kids have gone to school together, people have gotten to know each other. When you treat someone as a neighbor, you just can't just say, 'You're no longer my neighbor.'"

Indianapolis district officials, on the other hand, want to phase out the mandatory interdistrict busing over 13 years, one grade at a time. They sought permission to do so as part of a broader request that the judge declare the district unitary, a legal term signifying that it no longer runs a racially discriminatory system and can be freed from court oversight.

Judge Dillin deferred judgment on the question of unitary status, which was the subject of a four-day hearing in January. He said he would schedule an additional hearing soon.

But he made clear that even if he releases the 44,000-student district from federal supervision, black students in the district's so-called transfer areas will keep having to attend school in the townships designated to receive them.

"For all practical purposes, the transfer areas are integrated into their respective townships," Judge Dillin wrote.

Indianapolis officials disagree, and are asking the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit to reverse that finding.

"Obviously, we are disappointed," Donald Payton, the Indianapolis school board president, said in a prepared statement.

Transfer System Unusual

City-to-suburb busing has occasionally been used elsewhere as a desegregation tool, most prominently in St. Louis. But the Indianapolis arrangement is unusual primarily because it is mandatory for individual students and it pairs particular areas of the city with specific suburban schools, said Patricia Brannan, a desegregation expert with the Washington-based law firm of Hogan & Hartson who represents the district.

And unlike other cases, including the one in St. Louis, the Indianapolis arrangement makes no provision for suburban students to attend city schools if they choose.

"I don't know of any other interdistrict case that is structured this way," Ms. Brannan said.

Under the transfer scheme, the six townships this year received $47 million from the state to educate Indianapolis transfer students, $3.5 million of that for transportation. Township representatives, such as Mr. Day, say finances are not their prime motivation in wanting to keep the students.

But Indianapolis officials say the system for reimbursing the suburbs is unfair. They say the townships receive an average of $2,400 more for each transfer student than the state allows the city district to spend on its own pupils.

"If you live on one side of the street, the most the school district can spend on you is $5,455, but if you live on the other side of the street, the amount spent on you will be anywhere from $7,781 to $9,517," Rodney Black, the district's business administrator, said last week.

The townships argue that the higher spending is needed in part to overcome the disadvantages faced by inner-city children.

Assignment Plan OK'd

Meanwhile, city school officials were happier about another facet of Judge Dillin's ruling, which gave them the go-ahead to scrap their current method of assigning children within the district.

Under the system in place since 1993, students choose to attend schools within one of three regions, although their selections are limited by court-imposed racial-balance guidelines. This system has proved unwieldy, officials say.

"Busing has become a nightmare," said Julie Severson, a spokeswoman for the district.

Instead of the current system, known as "controlled choice," the district wants to assign students based on geographic attendance zones. The district's 85 schools would be grouped into five "feeder patterns," each including a single high school.

Because they hope to implement the changes next fall, district officials had hoped for a ruling on the assignment plan no later than January.

Late last week, the school board was expected to vote on whether to proceed with the change in September or postpone it for a year.

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