By now, both sides in the 40-year fight over school desegregation in Hillsborough County have had time to digest the sound reasoning behind the decision by U.S. District Court Judge Elizabeth A. Kovachevich to continue court supervision of the county's public schools. Though Kovachevich retained court-ordered busing for now, she also suggested the framework for a negotiated settlement between the school district and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and implied that within "the next few years" court supervision would end.
Kovachevich's ruling is the most constructive display of authority by the court in its 25-year oversight of Hillsborough's desegregation efforts. The judge put aside the most polarizing legal arguments from both sides and instead focused the school district and the Legal Defense Fund on their constitutional obligation to compromise.
Both sides have reason to negotiate. Though the Legal Defense Fund won this battle, the victory is largely symbolic. Kovachevich credited the school district for taking steps, albeit belatedly, to institute a voluntary integration plan. She also expressed her unwillingness to play a role in the district's selection of sites for new school facilities _ a move many black leaders had hoped to use as a strategy to prolong court supervision.
Kovachevich set as clear a course for ending the desegregation order as could be expected from the court. The district needs to hire competent experts to craft a long-term integration plan. It needs to expand and advertise transfer programs that will promote voluntary integration at more schools. The board needs to solicit community input through public hearings and create a truly functional interracial advisory committee. It also needs to look at the best examples of what other school districts are doing across the country.
Some school officials, reeling from the setback, are taking the judge's constructive criticisms the wrong way. Board member Carol Kurdell says Kovachevich is unclear. A school attorney wants to split more legal hairs, too. The lack of creativity among the staff and the policymaking board is exactly what gave Kovachevich concern and prompted her to prolong the court order.
Hillsborough is closer than ever to removing itself from federal jurisdiction. The worst move now would be for the School Board to test the judge's patience or to fritter away an opportunity to strike a compromise the district and the Legal Defense Fund ultimately must reach. The defense fund, too, should take advantage of the chance to negotiate from strength. Kovachevich, for all her criticism of the district, made several points clear: The federal courts will not oversee the schools in perpetuity. Nor is the district legally required to prevent every school from becoming predominantly black or white.
The Pinellas County School Board's approval in concept of a school choice plan that could replace court-ordered busing may or may not be a solution for Hillsborough, but a negotiated settlement rather than a continuation of divisive legal theatrics is equally preferable on both sides of Tampa Bay.
It is instructive to remember that busing in Hillsborough came about because the federal court concluded in 1971 that the school district was unwilling to go beyond the letter of the law in fulfilling its constitutional burden of providing equal educational opportunities without regard to race.
The same culture of inertia and obstinacy exists today. The School Board, which meets today, and the Legal Defense Fund will prove in the coming weeks whether they can play a constructive role in moving this community toward the goal of the Supreme Court's historic ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education. Longtime litigants on either side who cannot accept the broader responsibilities now incumbent upon them should have the selflessness to step aside so the debate may begin, unencumbered by ego or institutional history of the worst kind. Who brings the two sides together, and how, is not as important as that a true rapprochement begin.