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Published in Print: December 13, 2000, as Bid To Stop Busing for Integration In Fla. District Draws Protests

Bid To Stop Busing for Integration In Fla. District Draws Protests

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Hillsborough County school officials are at odds with local NAACP representatives about the best way to maintain and improve racial balance in their west Florida district.

The Tampa-based district has laid out a comprehensive plan that would eliminate busing to desegregate schools and, in its place, increase the number of magnet schools and special programs while expanding parental choice.

Superintendent Earl Lennard said the plan, which was adopted by the school board last month but still requires a federal judge's approval, would secure "unitary" status for the 161,000-student district, releasing it from almost 30 years of court supervision under a desegregation order.

About 7,500 students from Tampa's urban areas, most of them black, are being bused to suburban and rural schools to improve racial diversity. The district hopes to implement the plan by 2004.

"The real key to our plan to maintain diversity in the district is providing a quality education wherever a youngster goes to school," Mr. Lennard said in a recent interview.

Sam Horton

But Sam Horton, the president of the Hillsborough branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, called the plan directionless and convoluted. The plan's absence of goals for the percentage of black students in a school, and the lack of penalties for failing to reach those targets, means there would be no guarantee the racial balance would improve, Mr. Horton said.

And without the federal court's involvement, he argued, there would be no accountability mechanism either.

"If the courts abandon you, where do you go?" Mr. Horton said.

New Options

The Hillsborough County school board will submit the plan to U.S. District Judge Elizabeth A. Kovachevich in Tampa this month. The school district appealed the judge's 1998 ruling that required the system to make additional efforts to desegregate its schools; the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit has not ruled on that appeal.

Currently, black students make up more than 40 percent of the enrollments at 26 of the district's 160 schools. Another 24 schools enroll fewer than 10 percent black students. About 23 percent of the district's students are black, while 20 percent are Hispanic and 51 percent are white.

Earl Lennard

Superintendent Lennard acknowledged that the plan contains no districtwide racial goals for enrollments except for magnet schools. He said that recent legal decisions have ruled that race could not be used as a criterion for student assignment once any district was declared unitary, or free of the vestiges of illegal segregation.

Hillsborough would have to rely on new and current magnet schools, he said, along with so-called "attractor" programs, to draw white students to Tampa and pull black students to the district's suburban and rural schools.

"What we're trying to do is develop a plan that did not rely on racial ratios or quotas, but created a desire on the part of the community to have a diverse student population," Mr. Lennard said.

After the district held several community meetings about the plan, said Bill H. Person, the district's director of pupil and administrative services, it was clear that parents wanted to end busing and maintain neighborhood schools. But parents also wanted more options, he said.

Under the plan, the number of magnet schools, which feature programs ranging from the performing arts to mathematics and technology, would increase from 16 to 24. Mr. Person said magnet schools also would continue to have racial goals for enrollment in order for the district to qualify for federal grant money.

Another 41 schools would have "attractor" programs, such as a special emphasis on foreign languages. The district would be divided into seven regions; parents could select a school within their area when their child was starting kindergarten, 6th grade, and 9th grade. Students now being bused could choose a new school every year under the new plan, because they are not and will not be assigned to any particular school.

Mr. Person said the district hopes that the students who are currently bused would not choose to attend schools with high percentages of black students. In fact, there wouldn't be enough seats for those students in the district's urban schools, although a new high school will open in the inner city in 2002.

Although negotiations continue between the district and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Mr. Horton, a retired Hillsborough school administrator, asserted that the district couldn't be trusted to follow through with its plans.

"Neighborhood schools," he maintained, in fact mean all-black and all-white schools, adding that the plan would send the county's schools back into a separate and unequal system.

Vol. 20, Issue 15, Page 9

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