Palm Beach Shifts Integration Focus to Housing

By Peter Schmidt — February 26, 1992 14 min read

BOCA RATON, FLA.--This community of plush homes, golf courses, and polo grounds hardly has a reputation as a place where a middle-class black family can find a good housing buy.

But, thanks to an apparently unprecedented desegregation policy adopted by the Palm Beach County school board, at least one developer here recently has been going out of its way to reach the African-American market.

Levitt Corporation, which developed an apartment complex here called St. James Club, has been offering reduced rents to black apartment-hunters, marketing its townhouses in black newspapers, and taking other steps to attempt a degree of racial integration.

Other developments and even entire municipalities within Palm Beach County have followed suit and embarked on crusades to attract black families to white areas.

The impetus for these efforts is a school-board policy giving children a reprieve from being bused for racial balance if their neighborhoods are integrated.

Under pressure from the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil fights to racially balance its schools, the school board attacked what it saw as the root of the problem-housing segregation--and drew up contracts that exempt developments and municipalities from the district’s court-ordered busing program if they agree to become racially integrated.

Eight interlocal agreements and eight developer agreements covering from 22 to 5,000 units, both rental and sale, have been drawn up so far, and more are pending. Discussions also are under way to draft a master agreement covering all unincorporated parts of the county.

Although the civil-rights office has not formally approved of the agreements as a school-desegregation mechanism and several legal questions remain unresolved, national experts on school integration have heralded the Palm Beach program as potentially an effective, more permanent means of integrating schools without forced busing, especially in areas undergoing rapid population growth.

Asserting that forced busing for racial balance has caused white flight and the decline of some urban districts, C. Monica Uhlhorn, the superintendent of Palm Beach County schools, said, “Here, I think, we have the opportunity to avoid the social disasters that have occurred in other urban areas.”

“Everyone has known that urban school segregation is a reflection of housing segregation,” said Gary Orfield, a professor of education and social policy at Harvard University.

“I don’t know whether they have the fight formula down there,” Mr. Orfield said, “but they certainly have the right idea.”

The Advent of Busing

The 2,023-square-mile county encompasses 37 incorporated municipalities, most of which lie within a few miles of the Atlantic coast.

Over all, the district’s enrollment of 110,000 students is about 60 percent white, 27 percent black, 11 percent Hispanic, and 2 percent Asian or Pacific Islander.

“There is real diversity in this county, a startling contrast,” Superintendent Uhlhorn said. “You go from the mansions of Palm Beach to the migrant workers of the glades.”

Few local communities, however, are as diverse as the county as a whole. Housing patterns tend to run north and south, with the most affluent residents living in beachside homes, while middle-class whites and blacks tend to cluster in older communities between the Intracoastal Waterway and railroad tracks that run about halfway between the waterway and Interstate 95. (See map, this page.)

The land between the railroad tracks and the interstate tends to be inhabited almost solely by blacks of various income levels.

As the community has grown, most new white development has cropped up on the other side of the expressway.

The district operated separate schools for white and black children until 1970, when it lost a desegregation suit in federal court. The beard responded by dropping its segregation policies and implementing a busing plan. It was declared desegregated and released from court supervision by 1973, and, by 1974, it was regarded as one of the nation’s most integrated school systems.

Soon after, however, a housing boom in the undeveloped swampland west of Interstate 95 that made the county one of the fastest growing in the nation undermined the district’s control over the racial composition of its schools.

An estimated 179,000 new residents, most of them white, moved in between 1980 and 1986 alone, and the district felt compelled to build new schools in their neighborhoods to accommodate the growth.

Meanwhile, district officials admit, schools in the older coastal areas were neglected.

In 1987, several white parents from the coastal communities filed a complaint with the federal civil rights office alleging that the district was becoming resegregated and was spending more on the new schools and their mostly white student bodies.

An investigation by the office found the complaint to be valid, and the district was threatened with a loss of federal aid.

The school beard responded with a voluntary plan that called for new magnet programs, the realignment of school-attendance boundaries, and the desegregation of all schools by this year.

As a result, nearly 8 percent of the district’s students are now bused for racial balance, with elementary students riding up to 30 minutes and secondary students up to 45 minutes each way.

A Boon to Developers?

Meanwhile, new development continued, and William V. Hukill, an assistant superintendent in charge of growth management, said he decided to create the interlocal and developer agreements to avoid having to put even more children on buses.

Mr. Hukill said he initially tried to stem new development that would racially imbalance schools by submitting “racial-impact reports” on proposed developments to local land-use authorities. The reports, he said, were read and largely ignored.

Frustrated, district authorities decided to try to influence land use through the placement of school-attendance boundaries, and took pains to ensure that the residents of any new developments would find their children being bused some distance for racial balance.

The ploy worked. “The developers came in and said, ‘What do we do? We can’t sell these developments,’” Mr. Hukill said.

The district decided to work with the developers and with growth-minded municipalities, and laid down its rules by fashioning the developer agreements.

Most of the agreements follow the same basic formula: The school beard agrees to waive a given area from compliance with forced-busing as long as, by a set deadline, the student population sent by that area to local schools is racially balanced, or 10 percent to 40 percent black.

The agreements generally contain a strategy for promoting housing integration that may include building dwellings of varying sizes, lowering rents, and targeting marketing campaigns at blacks.

Whites in search of a home, meanwhile, hear the pitch that a given neighborhood is free of busing.

“In the case of the developers, what they have to gain is sales,” Mr. Hukill said. “In the case of the communities, what they have to gain is access to the nearest available schools.”

The school beard entered into the first developer agreement in June 1990 with Levitt, a nationally prominent developer based in Boca Raton.

“If it had been some local guy, I don’t think anyone would have paid any attention to it,” Mr. Hukill said. “The fact that it was Levitt made others consider it. That also demonstrated to the land-use authorities that we were serious.”

Levitt pledged to reserve 10 percent of the apartments in its 224 unit St. James Club development for black tenants and to reduce their rents by $155 a month, or $1,860 a year.

Levitt also agreed to devote at least 15 percent of its advertising budget for the development to the goal of achieving racial balance. To that end, the firm embarked on a marketing plan that included direct mailings to predominantly black neighborhoods and promoting the program to business, professional, and civic groups.

In a progress report sent to the school board last December, Elliott M. Wiener, the president of Levitt, said he already had leased 10 apartments, or just under half the required number, to minority families.

Abbey G. Hairston, the general counsel for the Palm Beach County school board, said most of the black tenants in the development are school-district employees who work in Boca Raton-area schools.

Holding ‘the Hammer’

Ultimately, the test of any agreement is not the racial composition of a given neighborhood itself, but the overall racial composition of the population the neighborhood sends to local schools.

“We are not trying to put a black family in every fifth house ,” Mr. Hukill said.

If the party signing the agreement with the district fails to send an integrated population of children into local schools by the time specified, then the children of that area will begin being bused, often at some distance, according to the district’s regular student-assignment patterns.

“The hammer is there,” Mr. Hukill’ said. “If they don’t pass the test, they’re on the bus.”

It is possible that the communities or developers involved may then press for changes in their attendance-zone boundaries, but, “basically, they’re presenting a re’segregating argument at that point” and will have the weight of federal civil rights law working against them, Mr. Hukill said.

So far, only one of the school board members has voted against the 16 developer and interlocal agreements submitted for the board’s approval.

Arthur W. Anderson, a professor of education at Florida Atlantic University and one of two black members of the school board, said he has been “extremely supportive” of the agreements because they “go a long way in providing a healthier community mix.”

The agreements also have received the backing of Project Mosaic, a coalition of community activists dedicated to improving race relations in Palm Beach County and avoiding the kinds of tensions that have erupted in riots in nearby Miami.

Kernaa H. Iles, the president of West Palm Beach Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said he helped draw up an interlocal agreement for the mostly black community of Riviera Beach because students there were being bused away to more than a dozen schools to help them become racially balanced.

When leaders of the town of Jupiter and the village of Tequesta met last month to discuss an interlocal agreement they had under way, most said they viewed the agreements primarily as a means of ending busing and encouraging parents to help improve substandard neighborhood schools.

“As long as you have forced integration, you don’t have any loyalty to the schools by the parents or the kids,” said Frederick E. Martin, the president of Jupiter Tequesta National Bank.

“We sit trying to get the right number of faces in a classroom, and never ever talk about the quality of education,” said Cheryl A. Onorate, a community activist.

As coordinator of Metamorphosis, a coalition of local leaders dedicated to improving schools in northern Palm Beach County, Ms. Onorato said she has come to realize that the fates of local schools and the broader community are closely linked, and that interlocal agreements merely reflect that fact.

Although no one at the meeting asserted that their communities had completely embraced racial tolerance, several said the proposed agreement had them thinking about how to improve race relations.

“There is a reason why we don’t have blacks in Tequesta, and we don’t really know what that is,” said William E. Burckart, a member of the village’s council.

“We have to find out what that is, and we have to change that,” he said.

Some Detractors

Mr. Hukill said the general public’s reaction to the agreements has been “essentially nonexistent” because those most affected by the agreements are potential new residents who may not yet be living in the area.

The agreements do have detractors among the community’s leadership, however.

Gail Bjork, the school-board member who voted against the agreements, said she does not think the task of school desegregation should fall to municipalities, developers, or the school board.

A foe of forced busing and an advocate of neighborhood schools, Ms. Bjork said, “I view the interlocal agreements as the lesser of evils, but still an evil.”

“We have not done an effective job of educating, and now we are getting into monitoring and overseeing communities,” she complained.

“God forbid that these interlocal agreements do not work,” she added, predicting that “havoc” will ensue if areas that were given a reprieve from busing under the agreements are forced to begin busing again.

Thaddeus L. Cohen, the chairman of the Palm Beach County Commission on Affordable Housing, last month criticized the agreements as likely to deter the placement of affordable housing where it is most needed.

He said few people would care about the racial composition of local schools if all schools were funded equitably, and predicted that few black families will want to move to new developments far from their churches, jobs, and schools.

“Think of the parents who are black who move out there,” he said. “They now have this neon light flashing, saying they are brought there under this interlocal agreement. They go in with this burden of having to prove they are just like everybody else”.

Moreover, Mr. Cohen said, the agreements, if successful, would have the impact of diluting black political power by disbursing blacks throughout the county and preventing them from getting a majority in certain voting districts.

Ms. Hairston, the school-board’s lawyer, predicted that the strongest opposition to the agreements will come from real-estate-agent associations that believe the agreements will limit how they market and sell homes.

No organized resistance from the industry has come so far, however, and a spokesman for the Central Palm Beach County Association of Realtors said his organization is waiting to see what stand the O.C.R. takes on the agreements.

A spokesman for the civil-rights office declined last week to say more than that the agency was reviewing the agreements and other aspects of the Palm Beach County desegregation plan.

Mr. Hukill and Ms. Hairston asserted that the federal agency has been supportive of their efforts verbally, but is hesitant to give formal approval to the untested approach.

“The problem is that no one else in the country is doing this, so there is no reference point,” Ms. Hairston said.

If the district’s integration plan does not work, the O.C.R. may force it to “pair” predominantly black and white schools and bus students between them.

In the meantime, Ms. Bjork and some other community leaders have questioned the sincerity of some who entered into the agreements, accusing them of simply trying to defer compliance with the district’s busing program.

Observers agree, too, that the most difficult task before municipalities will be to persuade whites to move into historically black neighborhoods.

Mr. Iles of the local N.A.A.C.P. office acknowledged that Riviera Beach will not be able to bring enough whites into its heavily black neighborhoods to integrate its schools. The agreement in that community, he said, “was entered into one, to keep the students of Riviera Beach in Riviera Beach, and two, to show the O.C.R. what they have mandated cannot be obtained.”

Ms. Hairston predicted that the school beard almost inevitably will have to go to court to defend the interlocal and developer agreements because a number of legal issues remain largely unresolved.

Little Legal Precedent

Among the thorniest of these issues is whether the school beard can compel third parties--the municipalities and developers--to remedy school segregation, a problem for which the beard ultimately is responsible. There is little legal precedent for linking housing and school segregation. (See related story, page 10.) Mr. Cohen of the affordable-housing commission said developers in the county often have made housing even more segregated by marketing developments to very specific groups. Mr. Orfield of Harvard, who conducted an in-depth analysis of racial trends in the county, has asserted that its fair-housing ordinances have been weak and largely unenforced.

Mr. Hairston, other school-district officials, and some community leaders also acknowledged that the beard may face a legal challenge for encouraging housing discrimination through the agreements.

“Whoever signs the agreements has the responsibility for bringing about racial balance,” Ms. Hairston said in an interview last month. “How they do that, we don’t care. The idea is to pass the torch, to get schools out of this business, and to get the people in it who should be in it, and that’s local government.”

Another challenge to the agreements could arise from the U.S. Supreme Court, which, in a pending school-desegregation decision involving a case from Dekalb County, Ga., could significantly narrow the responsibility of Dekalb, Palm Beach, and other districts to maintain racially balanced schools in the face of demographic change.

Ms. Hairston questioned whether Palm Beach would continue to enter into the agreements “if there was no legal mandate over our heads.”

But, Mr. Anderson of the school beard said, “You won’t see me backing away.”

“This school beard,” he said, “believes that it has a moral and ethical as well as a legal obligation to promote integration in our schools.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 26, 1992 edition of Education Week as Palm Beach Shifts Integration Focus to Housing