The Prince George's County Board of Education voted last night in closed session not to appeal a 1983 desegregation order to the Supreme Court, according to Chairman Angelo Castelli, ending one major issue in the complex 13-year-old desegregation dispute.
The 7-to-2 vote, which Castelli said will be confirmed in open session June 27, reflects a dramatic shift since last week, when it appeared five members would vote for an appeal. Three of those five, acknowledging intense pressure from the community, changed their minds and decided against an appeal.
"At this stage of the game, the question is moot," said Castelli, who voted with member Norman Saunders in favor of an appeal.
The news last week that the board was contemplating an appeal -- only days after a federal judge had signaled tentative approval of a magnet school plan aimed at desegregation -- stirred immediate reaction in the community, including hundreds of phone calls from angry constituents, an emergency resolution by the Laurel City Council opposing an appeal and a letter expressing similar sentiment from the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington.
Several of those constituents said they were relieved when it became apparent before last night's session that the board members had had a change of heart and would vote against an appeal.
"The popular view is one of relief," said Alvin Thornton, a member of the Ad Hoc Committee on Quality Education, a predominantly black organization formed over the desegregation issue. "Who would have even thought that right after the judge had given magnet schools the green light . . . there would be talk of an appeal?"
In a closed session June 12, the board was split on whether to appeal the finding of U.S. District Court Judge Frank A. Kaufman that the Prince George's school system was not fully desegregated. Proponents of an appeal said a Supreme Court decision in their favor could end the longstanding court jurisdiction over the county's 175 schools. Moreover, a victory would allow the board to recoup $500,000 in legal fees, they said, and provide leverage in ongoing negotiations over a desegregation plan.
Doris Eugene was the first board member to announce that, after hearing from her constituents in the Laurel-Beltsville area, she had decided against an appeal. One of those constituents was Val Kaplan, who said she called Eugene to express "absolute, genuine astonishment" that the board was considering an appeal.
"There was a very real hope that we could get some of the rhetoric out of the way," said Kaplan, whose children attend Laurel and Eleanor Roosevelt high schools.
Member Paul Shelby said yesterday that he changed his mind after meeting with his Bowie area constituents. Member Lesley Kreimer, who last week supported an appeal as "one last recourse" to ongoing court jurisdiction, said "in view of public reaction, it doesn't make much sense to go forward with it."
William Bradford, attorney for the NAACP, the plaintiff in the desegregation lawsuit, said he was "encouraged by the fact that the school board has decided to approach this issue by negotiation rather than by further litigation."
Board members had said last week that even if they appealed, plans would go ahead to establish 12 magnet schools this fall and boost funding at 10 predominantly black schools. Kaufman signed an order Monday allowing the county to implement the first phase of the magnet plan, which is designed to integrate schools by drawing students out of their segregated neighborhoods.