Elections Reflect Racial Divisions

November 18, 1987 7 min read

As desegregation plans mature and the courts relinquish some of their oversight of school districts, many communities are once again grappling with the thorny issues of race relations and student busing.

Such issues surfaced in school-board elections this month, as debate in several heated races centered on how desegregation plans could be implemented--or altered--to provide both integration and parental choice.

With the exception of measures that focused on increased parental and community involvement in the schools, national reform issues appeared to have little role in the local elections.

Following is a look at elections in cities where racial desegregation is a major issue:


Mayor Raymond L. Flynn was re-elected to a second term with a record 67 percent of the vote. But his triumph was dampened somewhat by the loss of support from voters in his home neighborhood of South Boston. Their disgruntlement grew from Mr. Flynn’s announcement, shortly before the election, that he would use the power of his office to press for racial integration in the neighborhood’s overwhelmingly white housing projects.

Nonetheless, South Boston voters chose Margaret Davis-Mullen to represent them on the school committee, sending what most observers interpreted as a signal that the issue of neighborhood schools is no longer the community’s overriding concern.

Ms. Davis-Mullen’s opponent, Jane DuWors, has been an outspoken anti-busing activist affiliated with the South Boston Information Center, which was formed in the mid-1970’s at the height of the busing controversy.

Although a federal appeals-court ruling recently granted Boston school officials greater leeway in adjusting their student-assignment process, few candidates identified such changes as among their top priorities.

Lowell, Mass.

In perhaps the most fractious city-board election nationally, voters in Lowell elected a school committee evenly divided--three to three--on the issue of whether to retain a new student-assignment plan adopted this year under pressure from state officials.

The seventh member of the board is the city’s mayor, currently Robert B. Kennedy.

He is a vocal proponent of the desegregation plan. But a new mayor will be chosen by the city council from among its members in January, and most of the city-council candidates expressed opposition to the plan during their campaigns. Mr. Kennedy retained his seat on the council but finished sixth among the nine successful candidates.

Problems with student transportation at the beginning of the school year prevented smooth implementation of the new plan, and exacerbated tensions between longtime residents and the growing community of Southeast-Asian immigrants.

During the campaign season, there were heated confrontations between supporters and opponents of the desegregation plan. School-board incumbent George D. Kouloheras, who has led the fight against the plan, received the highest vote total.

Observers said the future of the plan, which relies largely on a system of parental choice to balance the schools, but also includes some involuntary student assignments, remains uncertain.

Although the new city council generally disapproves of the plan, the schools would lose significant state funding if they choose a mayor who dismantles it. State officials have also threatened to file suit against the district if the plan is undercut.

School officials will also be asked to defend their actions in hearings on a separate lawsuit filed in federal court earlier this year on behalf of language-minority students. While the primary issue in the suit is bilingual education, it also touches on the issue of student assignments.

Little Rock

Voters in Little Rock face an unusual, court-ordered election on Dec. 8 to fill three school-board seats. U.S. District Judge Henry Woods has ordered the district to refrain from hiring a new superintendent until the new board members are seated.

Little Rock is in the process of shifting from a system in which board members are elected at large to one that will have representatives from each of seven districts. Two of the districts--both in areas annexed by court order--are currently without representation.

The December elections will fill those seats and will determine a replacement for a third board member whose term expires in March. A majority of current board members support the district’s desegregation efforts, but candidates elected from the annexed areas are likely to tip the balance of the board against the current student-assignment plan.

From December until March, when the terms of two board members from districts with multiple representation expire, the Little Rock board will have nine members. The judge decided to move up the elections after the Arkansas legislature changed the date s school-board elections statewide from March to September, to steer clear of the Presidential primaries.


Minneapolis voters overwhelmingly rejected a ballot initiative that would have changed the school system’s electoral structure.

But, at the same time, they ousted two incumbent school-board members and elected three candidates representing the coalition that sponsored the initiative.

The initiative, which was rejected by 68 percent of the voters, would have created a nine-member board--six elected from districts and three at-large. Currently, all seven board members are elected at-large.

Candidates from the Minneapolis Quality Education Coalition pitched their appeal to voters largely around the parental-choice issue, which has been a hotly debated topic in the district for the past year. School officials have cautioned that granting more parents their first choice of schools could compromise the district’s desegregation efforts.

A recent task-force report--endorsed by Richard Green, the district’s superintendent, and by the coalition candidates and a majority of current board members--recommended that parents be allowed only to choose a type of school program for their children. School officials would then assign the students to schools offering the specified program, using a mechanism that would ensure racial balance.

That three of the coalition candidates were able to garner the highest vote totals was attributed to the power of partisan politics. The three were the only candidates endorsed by the locally dominant Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. The fourth open seat was filled by Judy Farmer, the board’s current chairman.

The new board’s stand on the emerging issue of creating a voluntary urban/suburban student-transfer plan to promote integration is unclear. Such a plan, which has been discussed, was not an issue in the elections.


In an election dominated by a debate over the future of school-desegregation efforts here, voters elected only one challenger to the school board, giving the board a slim majority of members who publicly favor an all-voluntary busing plan.

For the past year, residents and school officials have discussed revisions to the district’s desegregation plan, which contains mandatory- busing components even though it was adopted voluntarily, in the absence of court supervision.

The board has the freedom--and is expected--to revise the plan substantially, probably before the end of the current school year.

Three incumbents were returned to the board--two who favor retaining some mandatory busing to ensure that schools are not resegregated, and one who is a longstanding foe of such busing.

Barbara Beuschlein, the board’s current president and a proponent of mandatory busing, was ousted in the primary elections held earlier. Her replacement, Connie Sidles, a busing foe, defeated a lukewarm supporter of mandatory busing by fewer than 100 of the nearly 100,000 votes cast.

Ms. Sidles’ primary victory led to speculation that anti-busing sentiments would play the decisive role in this month’s elections.

But though her campaign attracted strong support from opponents of mandatory busing, a second anti-busing challenger was soundly defeated in the general election by a pro-busing incumbent.

Ms. Sidles’ election will also most likely lead the school board to reverse its recent decision to move all 6th graders into middle schools.

Half of the district’s 10 middle schools currently serve only 7th and 8th graders; Superintendent William Kendrick’s recommendation to align the middle-school grades was approved by a 4-to-3 vote, with the deciding vote cast by Ms. Beuschlein.

Ms. Sidles prefers offering parents the option of keeping their 6th graders in an elementary-school environment.

Compiled by Staff Writer William Snider, with Staff Writer Deborah Gold and Correspondents Austin Wehrwein and Michael Buchman.

A version of this article appeared in the November 18, 1987 edition of Education Week as Elections Reflect Racial Divisions