Prince George's school officials have spent the past month in secret negotiations trying to revive a plan to curtail school busing in the county.
Though the negotiations have not yet been successful, the officials persist, determined to overcome Prince George's reputation as the busing county.
After an initial agreement between the county's school board president and the chairman of the county NAACP faltered last month, school officials attempted to gain support for the plan from the parents' group whose 1972 lawsuit led to the court-ordered busing.
In addition, school officials, have attempted to work informally with members of the local and national NAACP organizations.
Leaders of this extraordinary effort to curtail busing in integrated neighborhoods are school board President Norman H. Saunders and board attorney Paul M. Nussbaum. They are convinced that the school board must reduce busing in the near future if it is to preserve the county's racial balance and prevent a mass exodus of middle-class blacks and whites from Prince George's, sources said.
Black leaders who oppose the board's plan have said that extensive reductions in busing would mean that some county schools would become all-black, and that the students in those schools would then be deprived of a quality education.
Saunders and most board members are convinced that the board must obtain the support of black parents and leaders before publicly considering any reduction in busing.
These school officials believe they cannot make changes in court-ordered busing without consulting the county residents who originally wanted busing. In addition, they are anxious to ensure that any new busing plan will not be the subject of another desegregation suit. The controversy and tensions of such an event, board members have said, would severely damage Prince George's.
Saunders said yesterday that he believes the NAACP could agree to approve the plan by May 1. Both local and national spokesmen for the NAACP denied, however, that discussions have taken place or that an accord on busing with the school board is near.
So far, neither the county or national NAACP has officially agreed even to consider the proposed busing reduction agreement.
The negotiations between school officials and the plaintiffs in the desegregation suit began several weeks ago, after Prince George's NAACP President William R. Martin was suspended from his post by the organization's national leadership. He is accused of negotiating and signing the agreement with school board President Norman H. Saunders without consulting national NAACP headquarters.
School officials were said to believe that if a majority of the plaintiffs-only one of whom is a leader of the NAACP-supported the plan publicly, the NAACP could be swayed to change its position, or could be dropped from the proposed agreement in favor of the plaintiffs.
"The power rests in the plaintiffs," said John Williams, a plaintiff and NAACP member who represented the other parents in talks with school officials. "If the school board can get a majority of the plaintiffs to go along with the plan, they don't need the NAACP as much."
Williams said that the plaintiffs were first approached by Otis Ducker, an NAACP member from Oxon Hill who has been one of the prime supporters and authors of the Martin-Saunders plan.
After a long meeting with the plaintiffs, Ducker persuaded Williams to meet with Saunders, Nussbaum and Superintendent Edward J. Feeney in Nussbaum's office to discuss possible revisions in the plan that would persuade a majority of the plaintiffs to accept it.
During the meeting, which Williams said occurred on March 31, the school officials agreed to several changes in the plan suggested by Williams, who stressed that he was representing the plaintiffs.
The original plan would have set up a process under which the school board could allow children bused from neighborhoods that have become racially integrated since 1972 to return to their neighborhood schools. At the same time, the school board would agree that schools that lost students when busing was halted could not be closed for at least three years.
One substantive change made in the plan, according to Williams and school officials, was to include a provision establishing definite criteria under which schools could be closed by the school board in areas affected by the changes in busing.
The following day, April 1, Williams and the other plaintiffs met at Williams' house. "Think the plaintiff-or most of them-agreed with the plan in principle," said Williams. "But the key issue was that the plaintiffs felt that they could not trust the board.
"The plaintiffs think now that the board should come up with its own plan and submit it to the court for some kind of approval." Williams said. "The board is telling us they don't want to submit a plan to the court of take up a plan unless we agree to it first."
Williams and other plaintiffs said they agreed not to negotiate with Saunders or other school officials, and that they reaffirmed a letter they had sent to the NAACP earlier which suggested that the Saunders-Martin plan be vetoed.
Subsequently, Williams and another plaintiff, Reginald Jackson, agreed to meet with Saunders and Ducker at the Sheraton Lanham at April 6. "Saunders was upset that the plaintiffs wouldn't agree to sit down with him," Williams said. "And he said that if we wouldn't accept his plan, we should come up with alternate suggestions."
"Basically, the situation is at an impasse now," Williams said. "The plaintiffs and the board have made no progress."
Despite Williams' account, which was confirmed by Ducker and other NAACP officials, Nussbaum and Saunders said that they still are working to persuade NAACP officials to accept the plan.
"That may be the way Williams perceives the situation," Nussbaum said. "We're optimistic about the NAACP approval. We would be satisfied with the support of a majority of the plaintiffs."