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Path Geared for High Court To Hear Norfolk Case

By Tom Mirga — April 02, 1986 4 min read

A federal appeals court cleared the way last month for a group of black parents in Norfolk, Va., to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down a controversial plan that would leave 11 of the city’s 36 elementary schools more than 96 percent black.

In an order handed down on March 21, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit said it would not review a three-judge panel’s Feb. 6 ruling permitting the Norfolk school district to abandon busing in its elementary grades in favor of a system of neighborhood schools.

School-desegregation experts have predicted that the action will encourage other school districts in a legal posture similar to Norfolk’s to seek judicial approval to eliminate or curtail student busing.

Henry Marsh 3rd, the lawyer representing the black plaintiffs in Riddick v. School Board of the City of Norfolk, has said he will ask the Supreme Court to accept the case now that the full appeals court has refused to rehear it.

Modifications Studied

A day before the appeals court announced its decision, the Norfolk school board decided to delay a vote on whether to begin implementing the new assignment policy in September until it has an opportunity to study a compromise plan fashioned by the Rev. Wesley Hardy. Mr. Hardy is the only board member opposed to the neighborhood-school plan.

According to John McLaughlin, a deputy superintendent of the district, Mr. Hardy’s proposal would involve the shifting of 6th graders from elementary to middle schools. Middle- and high-school students would continue to be bused under both his and the board’s plan.

Mr. Hardy also proposed that the board close two of the 11 schools that would become virtually all-black and reassign their students in a manner that would promote integration. Mr. McLaughlin said that those two changes would reduce the number of black students attending predominantly black schools by 15 percent.

In addition, the compromise plan calls for reduced pupil-teacher ratios in schools where 80 percent or more of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, and the establishment of a monitoring committee to oversee programs and resources at schools that would remain predominantly minority.

Mr. McLaughlin said the Norfolk board would hold several public hearings on the proposal before putting it to a vote on April 14.

Federal courts have also taken action recently in school-desegregation cases in the following cities:

  • Oklahoma City.A federal appeals court heard arguments last month in a school-desegregation dispute almost identical to the one in Norfolk.

    At issue was the constitutionality of the decision by the Oklahoma City school board last September to end cross-town busing in grades 1 through 4 in favor of a neighborhood-school assignment policy. The plan, which was approved by a federal district court in April 1985, left 11 of the district’s 64 schools more than 90 percent black and 22 schools more than 80 percent white.

    Lawyers for the school board have argued that the new assignment policy was necessitated by demographic shifts in the city over the past decade that have naturally integrated schools previously included in the district’s busing plan.

    Lawyers for the black parents who oppose the change contend, however, that the new policy results in the unconstitutional resegregation of the district.

  • Little Rock. Lawyers for school officials in Little Rock and neighboring Pulaski County have presented a federal district judge with desegregation plans in a major cross-district integration suit.
    Initially, Little Rock officials won federal district court approval for a merger of their district with the predominantly white Pulaski County and North Little Rock districts. Last November, however, a federal appeals court ruled that the proper remedy in the case would be to establish magnet schools in Little Rock and shift the district boundary between Little Rock and Pulaski County to make it coterminous with the city boundary line.

    According to a spokesman for the Little Rock board, the plan it presented to the federal-district court on March 13 is modeled on the “controlled-choice” plan developed and now in use in Cambridge, Mass. Recently, a variation of the Cambridge approach was offered to a federal district court in a desegregation suit involving the San Jose, Calif., public schools.

    A lawyer for the Pulaski County board, meanwhile, said that his clients have proposed additional boundary changes that would boost the number of blacks attending schools in their jurisdiction.

    Earlier this year, the Pulaski . County board asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the federal appeals court’s ruling in the case.

  • Milwaukee. A lawyer for the city school board recently announced that nine of 22 suburban school districts named in a cross-district desegregation suit have tentatively agreed to a settlement proposal

    According to David S. Tatel, who represents the Milwaukee board in the case, the suburban districts have agreed to expand an existing voluntary interdistrict desegregation plan. The agreement calls for the transfer by 1990 of about 2,700 Milwaukee students to the suburbs and about 9,500 suburban students to the city.

    Mr. Tatel said the suit against the remaining 13 suburban districts is currently scheduled to go to trial in May 1987.

A version of this article appeared in the April 02, 1986 edition of Education Week


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