Federal Court Allows Norfolk Schools To Abandon Busing Plan

By Tom Mirga — August 22, 1985 8 min read

A federal district judge gave his approval early last month to a plan presented by Norfolk, Va., school officials that would make the city the first in the nation to successfully desegregate its elementary schools and then drop its mandatory busing policy.

The city school board, however, fearing disruptions to the school system as a result of an impending appeal, voted later in the month to postpone implementation of its new neighborhood-schools plan for at least a year.

U.S. District Judge John A. MacKenzie approved the board’s plan on July 9, stating that the board had legitimate concerns about the impact of “white flight” to the suburbs and parental involvement in schools.

The plan, which would leave 10 of 35 new neighborhood schools more than 90-percent black, was fash-ioned by the board without discriminatory purpose and “is a reasonable one and was a result of reasoned consideration,” he said. Last year, only two of the district’s 36 elementary schools had enrollments greater than 80-percent black.

In 1970, the year before the busing plan went into effect, 57 percent of the district’s 57,000 students were white and 43 percent were black. By the time schools opened last year, total enrollment had dropped to 35,500 students, of whom 58 percent were black and 42 percent were white.

Burden of Proof

Judge MacKenzie, who presided over Norfolk’s original desegregation case, declared the district “unitary,” or fully desegregated, in 1975. Given that status, he said in his July 9 order, the burden fell on the black plaintiffs in the case to prove that the new plan was adopted with discriminatory intent.

The plaintiffs failed to make such a showing, he ruled. In fact, he described the plan as “a reasonable, voluntary attempt on the part of the school board to ensure that the school system retains the greatest degree of integration over the long term.”

According to Jack E. Greer, a lawyer for the Norfolk school board, lawyers for the plaintiffs in the case, Riddick v. School Board of the City of Norfolk, filed papers with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit on Aug. 7 seeking a review of the opinion. He added that the board and the plaintiffs have jointly requested an expedited hearing before the court.

In other school-desegregation related activity around the nation:


The Justice Department filed papers with a federal district court in Denver last month supporting the city school board’s motion seeking fully desegregated status and an end to 11 years of court-ordered busing.

Evidence presented during hearings before U.S. District Judge Richard P. Matsch in April and May “overwhelmingly supports a finding that the Denver school system is now ‘unitary,”’ the department said in a post-trial memorandum filed with the court on July 16.

The department, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case in February, added that once such a finding is made, U.S. Supreme Court precedents make it clear that Judge Matsch should dissolve all orders he has entered in the case “and either completely relinquish jurisdiction over this case or, at most, enter a general prohibitory injunction commanding [the school board] to henceforth obey the Constitution.’'

Last December, the Denver board voted for the third time in two years to ask Judge Matsch to end desegregation-related busing for students in the district.

Judge Matsch denied the board’s request in 1981, but a year later he approved a desegregation plan that reduced the number of children bused daily from 13,600 to 11,000. The case is Keyes v. School District No. 1.

Suburban Houston

The Justice Department filed suit last month against a suburban Houston school district, claiming that it discriminates against blacks seeking teaching and clerical jobs.

According to the suit, during the 1983-84 school year, the Spring Branch Independent School District employed 1,948 teachers, of whom 50 were black, and 284 clerical workers, of whom three were black. The department argues in the case, U.S. v. Spring Branch Independent School District, that the school system has failed to recruit and hire blacks on the same basis as whites and does not use fair and nondiscriminatory selection procedures.

It asked the federal district court in Houston to order the district never again to engage in such practices, to adopt a “vigorous” recruitment3program, and to offer jobs--with back pay--to those individuals who can prove they were refused employment because of their race.

St. Louis

Voters in St. Louis in June rejected a $63.5-million bond issue for the second time, raising the possibility that a federal district judge could order a property-tax increase to help finance the metropolitan area’s landmark voluntary-desegregation plan.

In a report released on June 7, the day after the vote, U.S. District Judge William L. Hungate criticized a state law requiring approval by two-thirds of the voters for school-tax levies and bond issues. Voters supported the bond measure by a 58-percent majority and a companion school-tax levy by a 53-percent majority.

Last February, a federal appeals court ruled that Judge Hungate could order an increase in taxes to finance the plan, but only after “every other broad [funding] alternative” was exhausted. St. Louis school officials had predicted that6$102 million would be necessary to fund the plan in the upcoming school year.


The Milwaukee school board filed suit in federal district court in late June against the state of Wisconsin and 24 suburban school systems, charging that they cooperated for many years to isolate blacks in city schools.

The board, in papers filed June 29 with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, claims it cannot abide by a 1979 court-approved negotiated settlement to maintain racial balance in the district’s schools unless “the racially dual metropolitan-wide structure of public education” is eliminated.

Approximately 50 percent of the city school district’s 87,600 students are black. The suburban districts’ student populations are almost entirely white.

At present, 19 suburban districts are involved in a voluntary student-exchange program with the city. The city board had been negotiating with those districts and five others to expand the program, which last year involved the transfer of 1,200 black Milwaukee students to suburban schools and 200 white suburban students to city schools.

According to a spokesman for the city district, the lawsuit “simply tries to get the backing of the court for the expansion of the program.”

The board seeks to transfer approximately 5,200 students to the suburbs by the 1986-87 school year.


A federal appeals court ruled on July 17 that the Philadelphia public schools can order the involuntary transfer of teachers in order to preserve faculty racial balances in schools as part of an overall school-desegregation plan.

The six-year-old plan, which was contested by four white teachers, requires the district to preserve the faculty racial balance in each of its schools at between 75 percent and 125 percent of the systemwide percentage of minority teachers in elementary, middle, and high schools.

Yonkers, N.Y.

After seven months of negotiations to reach an out-of-court settlement had failed, the Justice Department in June reinstated its school- and housing-desegregation suit against the city of Yonkers, N.Y.

A plan that would have settled the school portion of the four-year-old case was approved last March by the city school board, but the city council refused to fund it, claiming it already faced a multimillion-dollar deficit.

Greenville, S.C.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People filed suit against the Greenville, S.C., County School District in June, charging it has failed to comply with federal-court-ordered racial balances.

Under the terms of a 1976 court order, the district is required to ensure that enrollments in the 1st, 6th, and 9th grades are approximately 76-percent white and 24-percent black.

In papers filed in federal district court, the civil-rights group alleged that the district has never fully complied with the order and has allowed increasing numbers of schools to deviate from the requirement.


A federal district judge in Cincinnati has formally approved a negotiated settlement ending a 10-year-old school-desegregation lawsuit.

Under the agreement announced on Feb. 16 and approved in June, the 51,000-student district is required to substantially reduce segregation in its schools by whatever means it sees fit. However, if the district fails to meet numerical desegregation goals by 1991, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which filed the suit, will have the right to have those goals enforced by the court.

Hillside, N.J.

A New Jersey Superior Court judge in June ordered the Hillside, N.J., public schools to implement a long-delayed, state-ordered school-desegregation plan.

Under the plan, approximately 300 students in grades 1 through 5 will be assigned to new schools this year, according to Anthony Avella, the district’s superintendent. The first phase of the plan, which involved the reassignment of about 350 students in grades 6 through 8, went into effect last year.

According to Mr. Avella, the district school board unsuccessfully sought state permission last year to dispense with desegregation of grades 1 through 5 in order to prevent white families from leaving the district.

Last November, Arthur A. Cutillo, who was then the district’s superintendent, wrote a letter to State Education Commissioner Saul Cooperman warning that 237 white students had transferred to private schools just prior to the beginning of desegregation.

According to Mr. Avella, as of June 30 another 140 white students had transferred out of the district, which enrolls about 1,800 students in grades K through 8.

A version of this article appeared in the August 21, 1985 edition of Education Week as Federal Court Allows Norfolk Schools To Abandon Busing Plan