The Norfolk School Board yesterday shelved a proposal to curtail crosstown busing and resegregate many elementary schools, handing a temporary victory to civil rights groups that vehemently opposed the plan.
The white-majority board hired sociologist David J. Armor, a busing opponent, to conduct further studies on the issue, an action that the opponents said indicates the board may attempt to restrict busing next year.
The neighborhood school plan postponed yesterday would have made Norfolk one of the largest cities in the country to back away from massive, court-ordered school busing. The proposal provoked an emotional debate on the state of race relations in a city where public schools once were closed for six months to avoid integration.
"We did not realize that the feeling was so strong for keeping busing or letting it go," said Hortense R. Wells, a black school member who favors a return to neighborhood schools. "This thing could blow up in our faces."
A spokeswoman for the Coalition for Quality Public Education, which favors busing, said the board backed down after encountering overwhelming opposition. The spokeswoman, attorney Gwendolyn Jones Jackson, criticized Armor's $60,000 study. "We think it's irresponsible and a waste of taxpayers money to hire somebody whose opinion has already been expressed against busing."
Norfolk, with a 60 percent white population and a 60 percent black public school system, accepted busing 10 years ago under federal court order. Last fall the seven-member school board, which includes two blacks, said busing had accomplished its purpose and was pushing middle class children out of the city, leading to resegregation.
"I still believe those beliefs are soundly rooted, but there ought to be data to either support or refute them," said School Board Chairman Thomas G. Johnson Jr., a white attorney. "I came to the conclusion we didn't have the hard data."
Johnson said he believes Armor, who won a Republican congressional primary in Los Angeles on Tuesday, will perform an objective study. Thirteen of the city's 34 elementary schools would be 80 percent or more one race under the plan killed by the school board.
Armor, worked at Harvard University and then the Rand Corporation, where he conducted a study in 1978 of Prince George's County and 22 other large school districts under court desegregation orders.