Desegregation plan is big step for Duval

Published May 9, 1996|Updated Sept. 16, 2005

The Duval County School Board took a major step toward ending its decades-long dispute with the NAACP over how best to desegregate Jacksonville schools.

The plan includes no busing for desegregation, but it does call for an ambitious school construction plan involving 14 new schools at an estimated cost of about $318-million. Three of the new schools would be built in predominantly black neighborhoods.

The agreement, which mandates black enrollment of 20 to 55 percent at targeted schools, was worked out Saturday after three months of court-ordered mediation. The plan was approved Tuesday by the Duval School Board, and still must be approved by local and national officials of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"I'll feel total relief once the NAACP takes the vote," said School Board chairwoman Cheryl Donelan.

This latest twist in the Duval County desegregation case is being watched closely by school officials and parents around the state, especially in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, where controversial changes to decades-old busing plans are up for discussion.

Duval was ordered to desegregate its schools in the early 1960s. Court-ordered busing began in 1971 _ just as it did in Pinellas and Hillsborough.

The Duval court case appeared all but over in 1988 when the federal judge overseeing the case lifted the district's desegregation order, ruling that busing was "counterproductive" and no longer necessary. The judge declared the district to be "unitary" _ the legal term that means it had eliminated segregation.

That decision was overturned a year later, and Duval County was ordered to continue its desegregation efforts. That led to further negotiations and more disagreements between the Duval School Board and the local NAACP. And it led to more controversy. Negotiations between the school district and the NAACP were held behind closed doors, which led to protests by some parents. Racial tensions were stirred. Death threats were made against some black leaders involved in the negotiations.

In Hillsborough County, the school district and the Legal Defense Fund are headed for a showdown in federal court. The federal judge overseeing the case has asked the district to prove that it has desegregated the schools. If the district is successful, it could be declared unitary and the court order could be lifted. But the plaintiffs have argued that the district has not completed the job of desegregating the schools, and that many schools are becoming progressively more segregated.

In the Pinellas case, the issue of unitary status is not at the center of the debate. But the district and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund are negotiating possible changes to the federal court order. Those negotiations and the prospect of adjustments to the court order have stirred controversy.

Under the Pinellas court order, there is a 30 percent cap limiting the number of black students who can attend any school. The district would like that number to be more flexible so families would not have to change schools every two years to maintain the racial cap. However, local NAACP leaders and some community leaders have said they do not want the cap increased, fearing that relaxing the percentage would signal a retreat from the commitment to desegregation.

The Pinellas School Board already has been given the go ahead to exceed the 30 percent cap at Bay Point Elementary School during the 1996-97 school year. The one-year exemption will keep 100 students from being bused away from Bay Point.

Pinellas and the Legal Defense Fund have until November to come to an agreement. If they do not, federal judge Steve Merryday has said he could send the case to a mediator or could intervene himself to hurry an agreement along.

_ Information from staff writers Stephen Hegarty and Anne Lindberg, Times wires and Times files was used in this report.