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Busing vote could be a shortcut to trouble

Okay, by a show of hands . . .

Who likes the idea of court-enforced school busing?

(Long pause.)

Hmm. Nobody, as it turns out. Especially when the question is put that way.

Here's a slightly different question:

Do you trust the public schools without it?

When you ask it that way, there is more variety in the answers you get.

Some people say, sure, let's get rid of the whole busing thing.

Some say not really, but they are sick of their kids being shipped all over creation.

Some say no, and they are still willing to pay any price, even busing.

Did you think all this was settled a long time ago? Maybe it was, for a while. But now it is unsettled again.

In Pinellas County, the School Board just voted 6-1 to try to end the court supervision it has had for 27 years.

This was a surprise. It was kind of like taking your car in for a tune-up, and finding out when you came back that they had put in a new engine.

The Pinellas school superintendent, Howard Hinesley, had been working on a deal to loosen the desegregation rules a little bit. Maybe bus kids a little less often. Let them stay in the same school a little longer.

As part of the same deal, Hinesley wanted to take some serious steps to increase the performance of black students who needed a helping hand.

One good thing about Hinesley's deal was that it was acceptable to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which had sued the school system in the first place. No years of court fights.

So the School Board held public hearings, and the public said: We don't like busing.

White parents didn't like it.

Black parents didn't like it.

They weren't there to talk about fine-tuning. They wanted to end it.

So on April 14, the School Board pulled off a big switcheroo. Instead of loosening the rules, the board voted to try to end court supervision of busing altogether.

Why? According to the majority, it was because the People Had Spoken.

(It is still not clear to me, after all these years, when you are supposed to heed the Voice of the People and when you are not. I suspect it is related to how likely it is that you are going to lose in court.)

The board sounded giddy.

"I think the hope is out there now," said chairwoman Lucile Casey. "I think we've restored hope to the community, to the children and to their parents."

Wow, that is a lot of restored hope.

Please, please do not think this is a cry for old-fashioned, court-ordered, the-heck-with-common-sense busing. But here are a few worries:

First, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund may now decide to fight in court. It could take years and a lot of money.

Second, the public hearings were held on the compromise, NOT on whether to abandon the whole shebang.

Third, it is Pollyanna-ish to claim that the Voice of the People was unanimous. The fact that a lot of black parents do not want their children to be shipped around like cattle does not mean they want to return to segregation, either.

Fourth, what pressure will "community" schools put on the existence of inner-city magnet schools? Maybe a lot. Surely you can understand the sentiment expressed to a reporter by one parent, Chrisshun Cox: "They put the magnet schools in the heart of the black community and then bus the black students out. What kind of respect can the kids have for themselves?"

In the long term, the School Board might have been better off _ and gotten more done _ had it taken the middle course worked on by Hinesley and the Legal Defense Fund. But in the short term, lots of people will cheer the School Board and say, hooray, they are against busing, just like us. It is so nice to be loved.