U.S. Judge Rejects Denver Board's Open-Enrollment Plan

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Denver--The Denver school board's plan to end eight years of mandatory busing was rejected by a federal judge last week as "an exercise in escapism."

After more than two weeks of a "full evidentiary hearing," U.S. District Judge Richard T. Matsch said the board's "Total Access Plan," which was to depend on open enrollment and magnet schools, was unacceptable for three reasons:

History and Realities

It fails to remove "vestiges of racial discrimination," as called for in the judge's 1979 order that the board develop a "unitary, non-racial" student-assignment plan. In drafting the Total Access Plan, which would have allowed parents to send their children to any Denver public school they wished, the board was trying to escape facing up to the history and realities of local school discrimination, Judge Matsch said.

It is incomplete, according to the judge, with many items in draft rather than final form. Under the proposal, budgetary and transportation factors would be impossible to specify until pupils register in the fall, he noted. "I'm just not certain what would happen, what central administration and staff would be doing," he said.

It is inadequately documented with regard to equity. The board, said the judge, "is asking me and the community to accept this plan as an act of faith. ... I don't think we can allow the minority community to rely on faith."

Following his rejection of the proposal, Judge Matsch ordered the school board to come up with an acceptable desegregation plan within 30 days. Otherwise, he said, the existing student-assignment plan will remain in effect. (Currently, about 15,000 of Denver's 60,000 public-school students are bused daily for purposes of desegregation.)

Schools should not have to remedy all the wrongs of society, Judge Matsch pointed out. But, he added, "We can't operate the public-school system in a way that does not recognize the inequities that do exist.'' An acceptable plan, the judge insisted, "must be a pupil-assignment plan," not a freedom-of-choice plan such as the total-access proposal submitted by the school board.

"Whether the school-board majority likes it or not, you have to have a mandatory-assignment plan," Judge Matsch said.

The Total Access Plan was approved by the school board last December in a 4-to-3 vote. The three board members who opposed the proposal favored the so-called "consensus plan" that had been developed last fall by an ad hoc committee of the school board.

Both the "consensus plan" and an alternative proposed by plaintiffs during the hearing before Judge Matsch would retain mandatory busing.

In rejecting the board's proposal, the judge suggested some elements of an acceptable plan. "I would like for the parties in the case to come together on some consensus," he said.

Judge Matsch indicated a willingness to accept "some ideas from the Total Access Plan for enhancement," apparently a reference to the magnet-school concepts in the school-board proposal.

Following the judgment, five of the seven board members said they believed an acceptable desegregation plan can be worked out within 30 days. Robert Crider, president of the board and a leader of the anti-busing majority that approved the Total Access Plan, said the board must cooperate to submit a plan acceptable to the federal judge.

'Comply With the Law'

"We'll do the best we can," Mr. Crider said. "We've got to comply with the law."

The Denver desegregation dispute, known as Keyes v. School District No. 1, is nearly 13 years old. Mandatory busing began in 1974, following the U.S. Supreme Court's decision that established legal principles that have since been applied in numerous Northern school desegregation cases.

Judge Matsch has been trying for three years to get the school board to submit a plan that would allow him to close out the suit and return control of the schools to local school officials.

In Boston, where desegregation strategies are also a longstanding issue, the attorney for the original plaintiffs in the school system's desegregation suit has suggested that an open-enrollment plan be considered for city schools, but any plan is subject to negotiation among the several parties to the suit before it can be submitted to the judge.

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