Shirley Tyler, vice chairman of the Alexandria school board, stopped in front of the auditorium doors at Minnie Howard Middle School last week and said she would not comment in advance on which busing plan she favored for the reopening of Cora Kelly School.

"Anything I have to say I'll say inside. I'd rather not comment now," she said.

At the meeting inside, Tyler and the two other black school board members -- John O. Peterson and William Euille -- did comment on the approved plan to pair Cora Kelly with John Adams. When they had finished speaking, they had raised fears about a racially divided city and had criticized the busing plan as being discriminatory against blacks.

But they also provoked unusual criticism from other members of the normally genteel school board.

"I wish one of them had given us some guidance on what to do. But they (the black members) did not exert leadership in this," said one white school board member, who asked not to be named.

The final plan was approved 6 to 2, with the six white members voting for the proposal. Of the three black members, Peterson and Tyler voted against the plan and Euille abstained.

Cora Kelly at Commonwealth and Reed avenues in the predominantly black neighborhood of Arlandria, was closed in 1976, partly because of flood damage from Four Mile Run. Cora Kelly children than were bused to John Tyler School, which is being closed at the end of this school year.

After the board decided last year to reopen Cora Kelly, the long and emotional process of choosing a busing plan began.

When it became apparent that Cora Kelly would be reopened, black leaders suggested that this time black children should not bear the full burden of busing and said, instead, that white children should be bused into black neighborhoods to achieve racial balance.

The city school system currently enrolls 11,000 students, with nearly equal numbers of black and white children. But because the neighborhoods served by the schools are not always racially balanced, school officials often must "pair" schools in predominately white or racially mixed areas with schools in predominately black areas to achieve the racial balances required by the federal government.

The issue facing the school system in the case of Cora Kelly was what school would be paired with Kelly.

The school administration and members of the public presented 26 options. The school administration, which clearly favored the pairing of Kelly and Adams, produced a report showing drawbacks to each of the 25 other proposals.

By last Tuesday, the evening of the final vote, there were two clear favorites -- Plan No. 1, the pairing of Kelly and Adams, and Plan No.22, the pairing of Kelly and Barrett. Adams is in the city's racially mixed West End, about 25 minutes by bus from Cora Kelly; Barrett is in the predominately black Lynhaven area, adjacent to the Arlandria neighborhood served by Cora Kelly.

By Tuesday, there was no question that one of the schools would be chosen, but it was on the point of busing white children into the Arlandria-Lynhaven neighborhood that the question of racism turned. Some black leaders have said that the only reason white residents opposed the Kelly-Barrett plan, which would have involved busing Adams students to the two schools, was because white parents didn't want their children going into black neighborhoods.

School Board Chairman Alison May opened the floor for discussion at 8:45 p.m. She asked each board member to state, "for the purposes of discussion only," which plans they wanted to talk about. (May later avoided expressing her own opinion on any plan by closing discussion before she had to speak.)

Euille, a black board member who often lets entire school board meetings go by without saying a word, warmed to his subject.

"I'm torn, and indecisive . . . It is unfair to throw the (26) options to the public . . . We have not studied each community in depth. We should develop a three- or a five-year plan," he said, adding that he had "no preference" for either plan since he saw limited merit to both.

But board member Lou Cook endorsed Option No. 3, which called for letting both Kelly and Adams serve only their neighborhoods as full kindergarten-through-sixth grade schools, a plan the administration had said would not be in compliance with federal standards.

Peterson, the second black board member to speak, said Euille had expressed his feelings "fairly well . . . We are looking at one school, and not the school system . . . I don't want to see us go back to a . . . segregated system, (but) Cora Kelly could be a neighborhood school without being racially balanced."

Board member Claudia Waller said she wanted "the least disruptive" plan, which she thought would be the Kelly-Adams proposal, an assessment shared by colleague Michael Mulroney. Another board member, Judy Feaver, said "change in itself is unsettling," but favored the Kelly-Adams plan because it would be change "for a happy reason" -- the reopening of the school. b

Shirley Tyler, however, reviewed the anguished political history the school board has gone through in the 1970s. She termed 1973, the year the federal government forced the board to come up with a comprehensive busing program for school integration, "the worst crisis for this city since the Civil War."

Tyler said she favored a Kelly-Barrett pairing because it allowed children to remain in their own communities.

Tyler said some studies had shown that middle-class children were not adversely affected by attending classes with children from lower economic groups, and that children from lower income families were helped by attending classes with more middle-classchildren.

This was her argument for busing some of the John Adams students into the Cora Kelly area, rather than "always" busing Kelly students.

But the final vote, along strictly racial lines, went against Tyler.

Under the approved plan, about 160 first, second and third graders from the Adams area will go to Cora Kelly, and about 177 fourth, fifth and sixth graders from the Cora Kelly area will go to Adams. Kindergarten children will go to the school nearest their homes.

After the vote, Tyler said: "There was a feeling on the part of a lot of callers that they didn't want their kids attending classes with black kids; it was as simple as that. If the return of racism is not addressed, then it will tear this town apart."

But Tyler and the other black members were criticized several days later by a board colleague who claimed their comments showed "a lack of understanding as to what this city has done for children, black and white, over the last 10 years."