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Busing case shows that obscure rule rarely used

The policy _ 24 years old and counting _ has never been invoked.

But that didn't stop Hillsborough school officials from citing it in federal court as a reason they shouldn't have to revamp busing plans to eliminate predominantly black schools.

The policy says this: If parents are concerned about the racial composition of their children's school, they can ask for a transfer and it will be granted. Simple as that.

School officials say the fact that no one ever has asked for such a transfer since the county's "majority-to-minority" rule has existed is proof that parents are happy with neighborhood schools, regardless of their racial ratios.

But what the school district says is a stamp of approval others say is a notation so obscure that even some school officials don't know it exists. All the lack of use shows, they say, is that the school system isn't telling parents, or anyone else, about the transfer rule.

"How can you apply" for a transfer, asks Al Davis, a member of the school Bi-Racial Advisory Committee, "when you don't know the provision exists?"

The special transfer is part of the 1971 federal court order that desegregated Hillsborough schools. Basically, it states that children of the majority race at their assigned school can transfer to the nearest school where they would be in the minority. The only thing parents have to do is file a request two weeks before a semester begins.

At Robles Park Elementary, for example, where the student population is 90 percent black, the parents of a black pupil could say they want their child sent to the nearest school where most pupils are white. Similarly, a white student in a predominantly white school could transfer to a predominantly black school.

The exemption is automatic, and unlike most special-assignment requests, the school district has to pay for transportation.

So why hasn't anyone applied for the transfer?

Tampa attorney Thomas Gonzalez, who represents the Hillsborough school district in an ongoing federal desegregation lawsuit, said the answer is simple: Parents are happy with the way race ratios have shifted in local schools.

If they were not, he said, they would have used the transfer policy to move their children.

Gonzalez made the comments during a hearing on the desegregation lawsuit. The lawsuit is back in court because the Legal Defense Fund, which represents the plaintiffs in the case, wants to force school officials to integrate 16 schools where changing residential patterns have shifted race ratios to more than 40 percent black. A federal magistrate recently issued a recommendation saying the district did not need to make such remedies.

But other than in the original 1971 court order itself, there is no specific mention of the majority-to-minority transfer policy.

The school district doesn't list the exemption in its official policy and procedure manual, or in any student handbook. It's not part of the standard monthly report provided to the biracial committee, which reviews the school district's handling of the court order when it comes to special assignments.

When Davis brought the exemption to the committee's attention during a meeting May 11, several members had never heard of it. Pupil administrative services director Ken Allen _ whose office reviews transfers _ said he wasn't certain the rule was still valid.

A month later, Allen returned to the committee to say the forgotten rule was still in place and valid. But he added that the special transfer is not part of any policy document and the school district had no intention of listing it.

That's standard procedure, Allen said. The handbooks given to all students at the beginning of the year advise parents of the special-assignment procedure, but examples are never given because that would help people tailor their reason to fit an exemption. In the last school year alone, Allen's office fielded more than 10,000 transfer requests.

If parents want to know about the rule, he told the biracial committee, they need only pull the court order.

"We're not trying to hide it," he recently said. "It just never came up."

Davis said he recently brought the majority-to-minority policy to the biracial committee's attention because he was curious how many members knew of the stipulation and how they felt about it.

"I wanted to get a sense of the committee," he said. "It was like, "Members, are we aware of this? . . . How well aware is the general public?' "

The answer appears to be not very _ in or out of the school system.

Last week, the Times asked several elementary school principals about the policy. None had heard of it.

Jeffrey Millman, principal of predominantly black Oak Park Elementary, said it was news to him.

"If it's out there, I can only say I need to do a little more homework," he said. "You learn something every day."

Gonzalez defended the school district's unwillingness to publicize the transfer policy, noting that the Legal Defense Fund could always notify parents.

Warren Dawson, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, disagreed. The court said it is the school district's responsibility to maintain race ratios, he said.

"To suggest that somehow the black parents could eliminate schools like Robles by essentially transferring out of there puts the onus on the black parents," Dawson said. "This school board seems to put the idea of desegregating schools on everyone but themselves."