Inter-District Suit For Desegregation Nears Settlement

By Tom Mirga — February 23, 1983 7 min read
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An inter-district desegregation lawsuit in St. Louis appeared near resolution last week as a federal district judge agreed to postpone for seven days a hearing to determine the liability of eight suburban school districts for segregation in the city’s schools.

U.S. District Judge William L. Hungate granted the one-week recess last Wednesday after D. Bruce LaPierre, a Washington University law professor who was appointed “special master,” informed him that parties to the lawsuit had agreed to an out-of-court settlement in principle but needed more time to work out its details.

See related stories on page 10.

Mr. LaPierre was appointed by Judge Hungate several weeks ago to bring the parties to the lawsuit together and to lead their negotiations. Lawyers for the city and suburban schools were ordered to appear before the judge again on Feb. 22.

School officials familiar with the lawsuit said that the private negotiations between lawyers for the city and the suburban schools, which continued throughout last week, focused on:

The voluntary transfer of teachers between the city and suburban schools;

The establishment of between 15 and 20 new magnet-school programs in suburban St. Louis County; and

The establishment of a city-county “citizens’ panel” that would oversee the voluntary desegregation effort and would eventually facilitate the court’s withdrawal from jurisdiction in the case.

The school officials added that the negotiators had yet to reach agreement on the financing of the plan, the level of integration that would be acceptable to both the city and suburban schools, or a timetable for moving the issue out of active litigation.

John S. Foerstel, a spokesman for the city school system, said that lawyers for five of the eight suburban districts that are defendants in the lawsuit have agreed to the settlement.

Lawyers for the three remaining districts, he added, requested the extension “so they could go to their school boards, explain to them the details of the plan, and make sure that they argue their cases before the judge exactly as their school boards want them to.”

Prior to last week’s activity, the eight suburban districts, which are located in St. Louis County, had declined to become involved with the city schools in a three-year-old voluntary desegregation program. The city of St. Louis is not a part of the county, but is bordered by it on three sides; the fourth city border is the Mississippi River.

By the beginning of last week, 15 of the county’s 23 school districts had agreed to become involved in the inter-district transfer plan, which now involves the transfer of approximately 350 white students from the suburbs and about 1,000 black students from the city, according to Gene Uram, chief desegregation planner for the city school system.

Single-Race Schools

The city’s public schools, which enroll more than 58,000 students, are about 80-percent black, and approximately 31,500 black students in the city continue to attend predominantly single-race schools. The population of suburban St. Louis County is about 70-percent white.

Legal activity regarding school segregation in St. Louis dates from 1972, when a group of black parents from the north side of town went to federal district court alleging that the city’s schools were intentionally segregated.

After a protracted legal battle, the parents and the city school board agreed to a consent decree on Christmas Eve 1975 that would have involved the racial integration of school staffs, the establishment of a system of magnet schools, and the realignment of elementary- and junior-high-school “feeder patterns” into the city’s high schools.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (naacp), however, challenged the plan as inadequate, and subsequently joined the lawsuit, along with the Justice Department, on behalf of the plaintiffs.

The court heard arguments in the case from October 1977 to May 1978. Meanwhile, the city school board established a voluntary desegregation plan that created eight magnet elementary schools and three magnet high schools. These schools enrolled about 3,700 students, 66 percent of whom were black. The program still exists and has been expanded, with the district now offering 21 magnet programs that are open to suburban as well as city schoolchildren.

City-Wide Plan Ordered

The federal district court approved the voluntary magnet-school plan, but on March 3, 1980, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit sided with the plaintiffs and ordered the implementation of a mandatory, city-wide desegregation plan.

Two months later, U.S. District Judge James Meredith approved a school-board proposal that promised to place 27,000 of the school system’s black students in desegregated classrooms by September 1980. That plan is still in effect and, according to Mr. Uram, approximately 7,200 students continue to be bused for desegregation purposes within the city.

The judge also ordered the state to pick up half of the estimated $21-million annual cost of the busing plan due to its apparent failure to remedy past segregation in the dis-trict. Both the Eighth Circuit Court and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld this part of the order.

In his May 1980 ruling, Judge Meredith also ordered the city school board, the state, and the federal government to devise a “voluntary, cooperative plan of pupil exchanges” for the entire St. Louis metropolitan area that would not undermine desegregation gains already made in the city by transferring white city schoolchildren to suburban schools.

It is this part of the order, and the reluctance of the eight suburban school districts to participate in the plan that it eventually created, that is now at issue before the court.

In December 1980, the state submitted a plan for voluntary cross-district busing within the region, but city school officials and the Justice Department rejected it as vague and inadequate. A month later, the city school board asked Judge Meredith to accept a mandatory cross-district busing plan that would have involved 39 suburban school districts in three counties.

The board alleged that the suburban districts were liable for segregation in the city schools as a result of their policies regarding student transfers, district consolidation, and personnel decisions.

The state subsequently announced that it would oppose all motions made before the court for state coordination of any mandatory cross-district busing plan.

In May 1981, the city school board and the Justice Department, newly staffed with Reagan Administration appointees, proposed another voluntary cross-district desegregation plan that would have used the incentive of free college tuition to bolster student participation.

That plan, according to Mr. Uram, “never got off the ground,” and eventually U.S. District Judge Hungate, who had taken over the case for the ailing Judge Meredith, proposed a voluntary cross-district transfer plan of his own.

Judge Hungate’s plan would have involved the city school and those in St. Louis, Jefferson, and St. Charles Counties. Under the proposal, which was made in July 1981, sub-urban districts would have been given a month to “volunteer” for the plan, but once in it, they would have been required to participate in it for no less than one year.

Minority Enrollments

Under the proposal, the volunteer suburban districts would have agreed to bring their minority enrollments up to 25 percent of their total enrollments. Furthermore, Judge Hungate informed the suburban districts that he would consider their participation in the plan when reviewing motions filed with him by the city school board and the naacp for a mandatory remedy.

According to Mr. Uram, only four suburban districts “stepped forward,” and on Aug. 24 Judge Hungate named 18 of the suburban districts located in St. Louis County as defendants in the lawsuit seeking the establishment of the mandatory plan.

At the same time, he approved the creation of a voluntary “pilot” desegregation project involving the four suburban districts and the city schools, and also ordered the state, the city schools, and the Justice Department to provide him with mandatory desegregation “feasibility studies.” He received those studies in early November 1981.

Since that time, 10 additional suburban districts from St. Louis County have joined in the “pilot” project. The other eight districts that have not are the defendants in the lawsuit, Liddell v. Board of Education, now before the judge.

A version of this article appeared in the February 23, 1983 edition of Education Week as Inter-District Suit For Desegregation Nears Settlement


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