Rezoning Violates Integration Policy, Md. Examiner Says

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A state-appointed hearing examiner has recommended that the Maryland State Board of Education break with precedent by overturning a county school board's decisions on school closings and changes in attendance boundaries.

The school board in Montgomery County, an affluent suburb of Washington noted for the quality of its schools and its voluntary efforts at integration, "violated its own regulations and procedures" on racial balance and building use in the cases of four schools, said Mitchell J. Cooper, a Washington lawyer acting as adviser to the state board.

The Montgomery board was one of the first and largest in the country to adopt a desegregation plan without being ordered to do so by state or federal authorities. But over the past few years, as minority enrollment has risen from about 10 percent to 24 percent, candidates who oppose busing for desegregation have been elected to the board, displacing the old liberal majority that devised the integration plan.

Faced with declining enrollment, the new board voted last fall to close 16 schools over the next three years, including six in predominantly nonwhite neighborhoods, and to redraw attendance zones for a number of other schools. In several cases, the board's conservative majority substituted its own closing and rezoning plans for those offered by Superintendent J. Edward Andrews.

Members of minority groups charged that the changes would resegregate schools in the southern portion of the county close to the District of Columbia line, where most of Montgomery County's minority-group students live. A study commissioned by the American Civil Liberties Union also concluded that integrated schools appeared to be primary targets for closing.

Parents and civil-rights advocates claimed that the board's actions were motivated by "discriminatory intent" in violation of the U.S. and Maryland constitutions.

Recommendation to Uphold Decision

Mr. Cooper recommended that the state board uphold the Montgomery board's decisions to close or rezone eight schools, but advised that the state board closely monitor two of the rezoned schools, which are in danger of becoming racially imbalanced by the county board's own definition.

He concluded, however, that the state panel should overturn three of the county board's proposals affecting minority neighborhoods:

Boundary changes at Montgomery Blair High School, which would have removed predominantly white neighborhoods, leaving a small enrollment made up mostly of blacks, Hispanics, and Asians.

Boundary changes at Eastern Intermediate School, which would have had effects similar to those at Blair, according to the hearing examiner.

The closing of Rosemary Hills, a school serving kindergarten and the first two grades, which has been desegregated by two-way busing with four elementary schools in predominantly white neighborhoods. Under the school board's plan, students who live in the Rosemary Hills neighborhood were to be reassigned to the four predominantly white elementary schools in the "cluster." The plan, Mr. Cooper said, would amount to "one-way busing," which is contrary to the county school board's own policy, and would place an undue burden on minority-group children.

Mr. Cooper said the Montgomery board ignored both its policy on racial balance, which calls for adjustments if more than 60 percent of a school's students are minorities, and its policy on building use. The board also failed to give adequate public notice or hearings, he said.

Mr. Cooper said he restricted his examination to procedural questions because the constitutional questions raised in the complaints "could have been in court for years."

"All the [state] board has to say is that there was a set of regulations affirmed by the county board itself and that the county board chose not to follow those regulations without any valid reason," Mr. Cooper said.

"I didn't reach any question of state law," he added. "The state board is exercising its general supervisory authority. I think that's appropriate when a local board violates its own regulations and procedures."

If the Montgomery board had rescinded its racial-balance policy before making the decisions in question, Mr. Cooper said, "it might have been a whole different ball game."

Eleanor D. Zappone, president of the Montgomery County school board, said she found Mr. Cooper's recommendations inconsistent.

"It seems to be different in each case," she said. "In one case he said the county board had made wrong choice, and he based that on renovations required, so that was a matter of finances. In the case of Rosemary Hills the objective was racial balance without closing that school--in other words, by bringing children into that school."

"He apparently didn't agree with us educationally, demographically, or in any other way," Ms. Zappone said.

The board president also said she believed that boundary changes and school closings "should be a matter for local control." And she added that the board would like to attract more white students to Blair with "magnet" programs, possibly in foreign languages, if the money is available.

"We are not under court order to desegregate," she noted. "We have been able to work through those problems and accomplish a great deal with good will. When it becomes not a matter of a voluntary effort, I think the good will cools."

The state board is expected to act on Mr. Cooper's recommendation after hearing oral arguments from each side in May or June.

In the meantime, planning for the opening of school next fall "is proceeding as it did before," said Barbara Ondrasik, a spokesman for the district. "All the schools that had been slated to close, we're moving along with plans to close. We have to go on the assumption that it's going to be as it is because the state board has never overturned a local school system's decision on this before."

Vol. 01, Issue 32

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