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Court lifts busing order

A federal appeals court sides with Hillsborough County on desegregation.

By STEPHEN HEGARTY

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 20, 2001


TAMPA -- After 30 years of court-ordered busing, an appeals court has declared Hillsborough County schools free of racial segregation and ordered the closing of a 43-year-old desegregation case.

The ruling by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals leaves little to chance or interpretation. It clearly sides with the school district's claim that racial segregation has been eliminated. It pointedly rejects the conclusions of U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich, chiding her for mistakes and inconsistencies.

And it leaves the NAACP and the Legal Defense Fund with few options for keeping the historic desegregation case alive.

"What they're saying is "It's over,' " said Tom Gonzalez, attorney for the Hillsborough school district. "We always thought we were unitary, and now the court agrees with us."

The plaintiffs still could ask for a review by the entire appeals court or appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Either avenue would be a long shot.

"The U.S. Supreme Court takes very few desegregation cases in the first place, so that doesn't look very promising," said Gary Orfield, the Harvard professor who has written extensively on desegregation.

Attorneys for the Legal Defense Fund said Monday they had to dissect the court's ruling and review their options. But some involved in the case are quick to declare that it is not over.

"The court is wrong; the schools are still segregated," said Andrew Manning, the man for whom the case is named. Manning, now 48, was a child forced to attend all-black schools when his mother joined in the filing of the case. "This isn't over. They have never wanted to desegregate. They still don't."

If the desegregation case ends, the district will move ahead with a "controlled choice" plan. The plan, which could take effect as early as 2004, is designed to maintain racial diversity in schools -- not with court-ordered busing, but by encouraging student crossover between black and white neighborhoods. (Please see related story.)

"We have a plan ready to go, that we developed with input from the community," said Hillsborough School Superintendent Earl Lennard. "It's a good plan. It's doable."

Given the appeals court's ruling and the somber reactions from the NAACP and the Legal Defense Fund attorneys Monday, it is easy to forget that ultimately they were on the prevailing side in the case.

Back in 1958, just four years after the Brown vs. Board of Education case outlawed segregation in schools, four black parents in Tampa charged that Hillsborough County schools ran a segregated system that shortchanged black children. Assigned case No. 58-3554, it remains the oldest active case in the Middle District of Florida.

In 1962, the court agreed that the school district operated a dual system in violation of the constitution, but the remedy was elusive. Simply declaring that barriers were eliminated changed little. Finally, in 1971, the court gave its blessing to sweeping changes that transformed the local schools forever. That's when busing started.

Suddenly students were bused miles from their neighborhoods to attend schools with children of other races. Historically black schools, including the old Blake and Middleton high schools, were closed. The changes, similar to those around the nation, divided communities and resulted in tensions -- at least for a time. But the district accomplished its goal of eliminating its racially segregated system.

"I'm proud of what we did," said Randolph Myers, the last living parent who lent his child's name to the 1958 lawsuit. "You try to change the things you can. There were some changes, definitely."

For several uneventful years, the case was a simple fact of life in the schools. Race ratios were closely monitored. Voluminous reports detailing the percentages of black students and black teachers in each school were sent to the court.

The case was modified in 1991, adding magnet schools to encourage white students to attend school in black neighborhoods. But much remained the same.

Then, in 1994 the Legal Defense Fund accused the school district of allowing some schools to become "resegregated." It listed 16 schools that were "racially identifiable," with more than 40 percent of their students were black. At one school, Robles Elementary, more than 90 percent of the students were black.

The question the Legal Defense Fund attorneys put before Judge Kovachevich was whether the school district was responsible for the resegregation or whether it was a simple case of changing neighborhoods and beyond the control of school officials.

That return to court set in motion the probable end of the desegregation case.

In 1995, Kovachevich surprised everyone when she declined to take on the limited issue before her, and instead took on the larger question: Are the Hillsborough schools desegregated and can the case be closed?

In the court hearings that followed in 1996, the school district's desegregation efforts essentially were put on trial. After an evidentiary hearing, U.S. Magistrate Elizabeth Jenkins recommended that the district had indeed achieved "unitary status," which means it had eliminated segregation and could be freed from the federal court order. Jenkins found that the district had done nothing to upset racial balance but that some neighborhoods became predominantly black, and therefore the school populations changed.

Jenkins' recommendation was sent on to Kovachevich.

Kovachevich had another surprise. She rejected Jenkins' recommendation and ruled that the district had not eliminated segregation.

The school district appealed Kovachevich's decision, and that led to the appeals court ruling handed down on Friday.

The three-member panel disagreed with Kovachevich in no uncertain terms. The court found that the judge repeatedly used the wrong legal standard to reach her conclusion. They characterized her findings as "inconsistent and difficult to follow."

The appeals court wrote in part: "The district judge's finding that appellants have not achieved unitary status was tainted and infected by reliance on an incorrect legal standard." They gave Kovachevich clear orders: She must declare the Hillsborough schools to be unitary and end federal judicial supervision.

School Board members welcomed the news Monday, while realizing the burden could soon be on them to show black parents that the district can be trusted to give their children a fair shake.

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