In Indianapolis, Nashville, a New Era Dawns

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Court-ordered desegregation plans in Indianapolis and Nashville, Tenn., are on their way out, following landmark developments in the legal battles that have embroiled the two city districts for decades.

In Indianapolis, a federal judge let the curtain fall on 30 years of court supervision last month when he approved a settlement phasing out an unusual city-to-suburb busing plan.

And in Nashville, municipal leaders cleared the way for an end to that city's 43-year desegregation saga by agreeing to pay for $206.8 million worth of school construction that will help curtail cross-town busing.

"This isn't just another council vote, this is history," said Craig L. Owensby, the director of communications for the Nashville-Davidson County schools after the combined city-county council approved the spending plan on June 23. "The city is going to feel the effects of this for many years to come."

The Nashville plan was a scaled-down version of a proposal the 71,000-student district and the plaintiffs in the desegregation lawsuit jointly presented to U.S. District Judge Thomas Wiseman in January. At that time, the judge praised it and put the case on hold until July 1 to give school officials time to line up financing.

Life After Desegregation

Read these stories in our recent series on desegregation:

June 24, 1998: "Legal Issues Complicate Efforts To Integrate School Staffs."

June 17, 1998: "A Denver High School Reaches Out to the Neighborhood It Lost to Busing."

June 10, 1998: "New Magnet School Policies Sidestep an Old Issue: Race."

The package faced rough sledding politically, in part because it required a property-tax increase just one year after such taxes had risen steeply. Critics also said the plan did not go far enough in restoring neighborhood schools.

Some busing for desegregation would continue under the Nashville agreement. Still, school officials stressed that many more children would attend schools closer to home once the five-year construction plan is complete.

Building Boom Ahead

Philip N. Bredesen

Nashville Mayor Philip N. Bredesen joined school leaders in calling the plan a watershed. "I'm very pleased. I think it's a good plan," he said. "We are confident of the constitutionality of what we are doing."

Richard H. Dinkins, the lawyer for the black plaintiffs who first sued the Nashville schools in 1955, also praised the plan. Although it is expected to make some schools more racially identifiable, he said it included safeguards for the African-American students who make up about 43 percent of district enrollment.

The plan calls for constructing 15 new elementary and middle schools, building additions to seven middle schools, and renovating 11 more elementary schools. In addition, the number of magnet programs would expand from nine to 15, and students would typically have to attend just three schools during their school careers rather than the current four.

The number of students able to walk to school is projected to rise from 19,000 to 21,000, while the proportion of students in schools within five miles of home would climb from 80 percent to 94 percent, Mr. Owensby said.

Students in primarily black inner-city schools would have the option of attending suburban schools, with transportation provided. The predominantly black schools would also be given extra resources and programs, Mr. Owensby said, a feature cited by Mr. Dinkins and George H. Thompson III, one of two African-Americans on the city school board.

"The trend of federal court and Supreme Court decisions has been toward releasing school districts from any obligations so long as they show they are no longer segregated," Mr. Thompson said. "For the plaintiffs and the school board to have reached an agreement whereby there was some guarantee of funding and quality for our schools I think was a major accomplishment."

Transfer Program To End

In Indianapolis, the busing of some 5,500 black students from the inner city to nearby suburbs will be phased out one grade per year under the deal approved by U.S. District Judge S. Hugh Dillin. In his June 25 order, Judge Dillin closed the case and declared the 43,000-student district unitary, meaning that it had met its legal obligations to desegregate.

For at least one of the six suburban districts involved in the transfer program, the 13-year phaseout will start in fall of 1999. The others will begin the transition no later than 2004.

In an attempt to replace some of the black students those suburbs will lose, the settlement was accompanied by an unusual agreement among local housing officials, the state, and the U.S. Department of Justice.

The deal commits the Indianapolis Housing Agency to a series of steps aimed at increasing the number of low-income and minority families who can find housing in the suburbs.

The agreement represents a rare attempt to incorporate into a school desegregation settlement an attack on the residential segregation that hinders integration in the schools.

Some districts, such as Palm Beach County, Fla., have tried over the years to promote residential integration, often with limited success. In Indianapolis, the 43,000-student district itself will play no direct role in the housing efforts.

Indianapolis is one of only a few places around the country, including Milwaukee and St. Louis, where courts have ordered interdistrict busing for desegregation. The program is unique, however, in that it assigns children from specific zones of the city to particular suburbs--known as townships--and gives residents of those urban zones a voice on the suburbs' school boards.

When Judge Dillin ordered the transfer program in 1981, the affected townships vigorously opposed it. But their stance changed over time, and they have in recent years fought the city's efforts to reclaim the students. The townships receive extra aid from the state to accommodate the city children, as well as tuition from Indianapolis.

Finding that the city zones had been well "integrated into their respective townships," Judge Dillin last year rebuffed the city's bid for the students' return and ruled that the transfer program should be permanent. ("Judge Spurns Indianapolis Bid To Recover Bused Students," March 12, 1997.)

But last October, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit held that the transfers were never meant to continue indefinitely. The Chicago-based appeals court directed Judge Dillin to give Indianapolis a chance to make its case.

The district was to get that chance last month. But the parties reached a last-minute deal before the hearing began.

Resegregation Foreseen

Desegregation advocate Gary A. Orfield assailed the Indianapolis agreement as giving the green light to resegregation. Mr. Orfield, a professor of education and social policy at Harvard University, had been retained as an expert witness by one of the suburban districts that advocated continuing the transfers.

Mr. Orfield said that Indianapolis students "are being sent back into extremely inferior schools," and that the housing initiatives should complement and not replace the transfer program. He also chastised the Justice Department, which brought the lawsuit in 1968, for acceding to the plan even though it had a strong case. "They sold it out," he said.

A spokesman for the Justice Department disagreed. "By diversifying the neighborhoods, we feel we're laying the foundation for the long-term desegregation of the school system,'' said the spokesman, Myron L. Marlin.

Patricia A. Brannan, a Washington lawyer who represented the Indianapolis schools in the case, called Mr. Orfield's remarks "intensely unfair."

She noted that the judge's order directs Indianapolis to maintain diversity within the district by sticking to its pledge that no school's students and staff will exceed 85 percent of one race.

Those obligations, Ms. Brannan argued, would preserve at least some measure of diversity. "It just isn't fair to portray this as children coming back to racially isolated schools."

Vol. 17, Issue 42, Pages 8-9

Published in Print: July 8, 1998, as In Indianapolis, Nashville, a New Era Dawns
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