U.S. District Court Judge Frank A. Kaufman today questioned whether the Prince George's County School Board violated his 1972 desegregation order when it adopted a controversial plan of an advisory panel to reduce school busing in 1980.
As the fourth week of a trial involving the NAACP challenge to the board's integration efforts began, Kaufman said: "The question in my mind. . . is why would there be busing changes that would increase the black percentage in schools like Owens Road Elementary , which was 87 percent black?" He was referring to a school that authorities have testified was difficult to desegregate. "In some instances there are schools over 50 percent black. . . where there were changes made . . . to make them more black," he added.
In October 1979, the school board appointed the Citizens Advisory Committee on Busing with the charge of "reducing the amount of busing and the average distances pupils are transported" and "to recommend a means by which busing for desegregation can be reduced without simultaneously causing a resegregation of the public schools."
Each school board member appointed three committee members with the exception of the only black member, Bonnie Johns, who said that the committee's focus was too narrow. The county American Civil Liberties Union, which brought the original school desegregation suit in 1972, and the NAACP also declined to participate.
In March 1980 the committee adopted a plan, essentially drawn by county school employes at the committee's request, that shifted 3,772 elementary students to schools closer to their homes. This removed about 1,400 students from bus rides.
While the racial balance in some schools was brought closer to the county average of 49 percent black as a result of the shift, about 20 schools well over 60 percent black were expected to become blacker as a result of the move, while six predominantly white schools were projected to get whiter. In most cases the expected change was a few percentage points in racial change, but the projections tended to underestimate the actual racial impact.
Jon Peterson, in charge of pupil accounting for the school system, used the example of predominantly black Oakcrest Elementary to illustrate the problem of "cross-busing" that the committee's plan addressed. Of 193 students bused to Oakcrest from the once predominantly white neighborhood around Bladensburg Elementary in 1979, 160 were black.
"We were in essence busing black children to a black school," said Peterson, explaining why the students were returned to Bladensburg after the change. Largely as a result of the shift, Oakcrest went from 68 to 74 percent black, and Bladensburg from 52 to 60 percent black. Peterson, under questioning from Kaufman, said that there were other nearby predominantly white schools, such as 82 percent white Hyattsville Elementary, that could have received the Bladensburg children.
"I guess we found the best assignment at Bladensburg. At that time the school system was not in the business of balancing the schools," Peterson said.