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Order may allow racial imbalance in schools

A federal magistrate has found that even though Hillsborough public schools have black populations as high as 90 percent, the district is not in violation of the court's 1971 desegregation order.

In a report and recommendation issued Friday, U.S. Magistrate Elizabeth A. Jenkins wrote that the Hillsborough school district does not have a responsibility to adjust race ratios at each school every year, so long as racial imbalances are caused by demographics and not by any actions of the school district.

Hillsborough school officials "have no continuing duty to maintain a particular black-white ratio on a school-by-school basis year in and year out," Jenkins wrote, "including the 80 percent/20 percent ideal set forth in the 1971 order."

The magistrate will not have the last word on the matter; her recommendation will be sent to U.S. Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich, who will make the final decision.

Still, Jenkins' 44-page report is a big victory for the Hillsborough school district because the magistrate sided with the School Board on the key issues.

The school district has argued that the racial imbalances at the 16 schools in question were caused by natural, demographic changes in the neighborhoods, and not by anything the School Board did.

But lawyers for the Legal Defense Fund, which brought the original lawsuit that led to court-ordered busing, contended that the district failed to comply with the court order by allowing schools to become "resegregated."

If the ruling had gone the other way, the district probably would have been forced to reassign and bus thousands more students. A ruling against the school system also could be fatal to the district's ambitious "cluster plan," which is designed as a move toward more of a "neighborhood school" approach.

The 16 schools at issue _ most of them elementary schools _ have black populations of 40 percent or more. At the top of the list is Robles Elementary, which has a black population of 93 percent.

Warren Dawson, the lawyer for the Legal Defense Fund, argued that those schools had been allowed to become resegregated and "racially identifiable." Therefore, he said, the court should force the district to comply with the 1971 desegregation order.

But School Board attorney Tom Gonzalez argued that the schools had been desegregated back in the 1970s, and that any racial imbalances that now exist were caused by factors outside the district's control.

Most of the schools in question were predominantly white in the early days of desegregation. Their populations gradually changed as the neighborhoods changed. All along, the schools have been neighborhood schools, in that most of the children live nearby and walk to campus.

Unlike the Pinellas County desegregation plan, which involves close monitoring of race ratios and strict caps on black enrollment at individual schools, the race ratios in the Hillsborough plan have been in flux for years.

Even if Judge Kovachevich agrees with the magistrate's recommendation, the district still will be bound by the desegregation order. The district still buses roughly 15,000 children _ black and white _ in order to achieve racial balance at many schools.

As Jenkins pointed out, the district has not asked to be released from the court order. But she acknowledged that eventually the court would have to rule on such a request.

Although the district has not made such a request, School Board member Glenn Barrington has asked the superintendent to gather information to let board members know whether the district might be successful in seeking release.

News of the magistrate's report drew a groan from Ann Porter, president of the Tampa chapter of the NAACP. She took issue with Jenkins' finding that racial imbalances in the schools are all right if they are caused by demographics.

"Demographics has been the problem all along," Porter said. "Look at our housing patterns. We still don't have an integrated society. We have the same condition in some schools that we had in the past."

But School Board member Candy Olson said the report was good news, especially since the district would not be forced to reassign and bus many more students.

"If you look at how excruciating boundary changes are, you see that you need to be careful with these things," Olson said. "We need to remember that school populations are people, not statistics."