Savannah, Dallas Schools Declared Desegregated

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Federal judges have declared the school systems in Savannah, Ga., and Dallas legally desegregated, signaling for each the end of decades of court supervision.

In separate, laudatory decisions, U.S. District Court judges declared the Savannah-Chatham County School District and the Dallas Independent School District to be "unitary," or free of the vestiges of the racial segregation that their state laws once required.

The two districts were praised for effective use of magnet schools and other mechanisms for bringing about voluntary desegregation, and they pledged to continue, on their own, to operate such programs to keep schools racially balanced.

U.S. District Judge B. Avant Edenfield dismissed the case against Savannah-Chatham County--thereby releasing the district from court supervision--and declared the 36,000-student district unitary in an order last month.

"This puts control of the school district in the hands of those most directly responsible for its success: the local board of education," Karen Matthews, the president of the Savannah-Chatham County school board, said in a statement.

Judge Barefoot Sanders declared the Dallas school system unitary, but said the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit requires him to monitor the district an additional three years before dismissing the case.

Permissible Imperfection

In declaring the Savannah-Chatham County district unitary after three decades of litigation, Judge Edenfield said the district had accomplished "momentous" changes with its most recent desegregation plan, approved in 1988.

He praised the district for spending more than $57 million since 1988 to carry out various desegregation initiatives, such as the development of 22 magnet programs--12 more than the plan required.

The judge acknowledged that several schools continued to have minority enrollments outside the 1988 plan's guidelines. But, he said, all have made substantial strides, especially given the district's demographics.

"If the district is not allowed to reap the rewards of its momentous efforts, and instead is admonished into accomplishing the near-impossible, then the court shifts from insuring racial integration to imposing an exercise in futility," Judge Edenfield wrote.

Dennis D. Parker, who represented the plaintiffs as a lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said he may appeal the ruling. He expressed concern that the district is planning school construction that may contribute to racial isolation.

Dallas Disparities

Judge Sanders' decision, issued in mid-summer, praised the Dallas school system for making "enormous progress in providing equal educational opportunities" to all of the district's 145,000 students.

The judge commended the district's recent passage of a $275 million bond to equalize and upgrade facilities and to build a $20 million "supermagnet" school expected to house six of the district's magnet high schools.

Noting that the district's predominantly white schools have been desegregated, Judge Sanders said further integration may not be practicable. Since the desegregation suit was filed in 1970, the district has changed from mostly white to about 43 percent black, 41 percent Hispanic, 13 percent white, and 3 percent from other groups. It is expected to become mostly Hispanic by 1996.

The judge cautioned that, before relinquishing jurisdiction of the case, he may revisit the question of whether the district has done all it can to remedy disparities in student achievement resulting from segregation. An outside expert blamed socioeconomic factors for most of the remaining achievement gaps, but Judge Sanders nonetheless told the district to continue trying to help minority students catch up.

The judge rejected the plaintiffs' contention that he should consider the ongoing racial conflict on the school board, whose three black members opposed seeking unitary status, as evidence that the district had not overcome the vestiges of discrimination.

In a separate U.S. District Court, Judge Walter H. Rice last month gave final approval to a settlement in the Cincinnati desegregation case that contained controversial provisions holding teachers accountable for racial disparities in student discipline.

Cincinnati Teachers Miffed

Under the terms of the settlement between the Cincinnati plaintiffs and district and Ohio officials, the school system will ask principals to keep detailed records of disciplinary referrals, identifying and giving the race of both the teacher making the referral and the student involved. Teachers who prove skilled in managing student behavior will be eligible for bonuses, promotions, and other rewards, while teachers who are found lacking in this area may be dismissed if they fail to improve. (See Education Week, Nov. 10, 1993.)

Officials of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers had sought to intervene in the case because, they said, the settlement unfairly burdened teachers, ignored the role of parents and principals in maintaining student discipline, and failed to fully account for the impact of gender and class on suspension and expulsion rates. (See Education Week, Jan. 19, 1994.)

"This settlement creates the danger that teachers will be intimidated from enforcing reasonable order and discipline in classrooms," Tom Mooney, the president of the C.F.T., said last week.

Nevertheless, Judge Rice held that his charge was to accept or reject the agreement as written and that he lacked the authority to allow the C.F.T. to intervene and tinker with specific provisions.

Mr. Mooney said the C.F.T. plans to appeal the judge's decision.

Other provisions of the settlement call for the 50,000-student district, which has an enrollment that is about 65 percent black, to continue to maintain racial balance in schools and to provide preschools and other programs to boost student achievement. Active court involvement in the two-decade-old case will end unless the state education department cannot resolve disputes between the litigants.

Topeka Plan Approved

Also last month, the Topeka, Kan., school board gained court approval of a new desegregation plan in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case.

U.S. District Judge Richard D. Rogers last month accepted the board's plan to redraw attendance boundaries, encourage voluntary student transfers, and build three elementary schools, two of them magnets, to foster racial balance in the 15,000-student district.

The judge was unswayed when a lawyer for the black plaintiffs argued that the board plan did not strive for enough integration and would not meet its own goals. He also rejected the plaintiffs' rival desegregation plan, calling for "controlled choice," as unlikely to gain much community support because it left some students subject to being assigned to schools outside their neighborhoods.

The Topeka school board last month unanimously agreed to put a bond measure on the November ballot to finance at least $15 million in school construction associated with the plan. Gary Sebelius, the board's lawyer, said the district will likely seek unitary status once the plan is fully implemented, probably in three years. (See Education Week, July 14, 1993.)

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