Norfolk, whose public schools have been embroiled for years in a bitter legal struggle over busing, may be on the way to ending both the fighting and the bitterness.
If it happens, it will be because the city's political leadership seems to have reached a series of impasse-breaking conclusions: that those who take opposing sides on the question of busing are not necessarily enemies; that whites who favor neighborhood schools are not necessarily bigots; and that blacks who insist on integration are not necessarily incapable of compromise.
The Rev. Wesley Hardy might not put it quite that way. He is, after all, the lone school board member to hold out against a controversial court-approved plan to return elementary pupils to neighborhood schools. But he is also the author of the compromise put before the board last Thursday, the day the board was to vote on implementing the neighborhood plan for next fall.
Under Hardy's nine-point proposal, all sixth graders would move from elementary schools to middle schools, thus increasing the number of children attending integrated schools. (Students in middle and high schools would continue to be bused under both the court-approved plan and the Hardy compromise). He would reduce from 10 to eight the number of overwhelmingly black elementary schools and substantially reduce teacher- pupil ratios at schools in low-income neighborhoods. And he would establish an oversight committee to monitor resources and programs at black elementary schools.
The proposal makes sense on racial, political and educational grounds. It retains a substantial degree of integration without involving elementary youngsters in cross-town busing. It recognizes that blacks in Norfolk now have sufficient political clout to enforce fairness and speaks to what is (or should be) everybody's No. 1 concern: better education for those who need it most desperately.
As under the earlier plan, the Hardy compromise would allow any parent to transfer a child from a school in which his race is a majority into any school in which he would be in the minority. But he also proposes that if there are large numbers of transfers from either of two schools serving major public-housing developments, the schools would be closed and their students sent to integrated schools.
The wonder is that it took so long for somebody to come up with something approximating what Hardy proposed last week. The city seems to be largely free of both hard-core segregationists and busing fanatics. Those whites most adamantly opposed to busing insist that black children should not be shunted aside. Those blacks most committed to desegregation are principally interested in improving educational opportunity for black children.
But both in the courts and in the political trenches, the opposing sides had allowed their differences to degenerate into open warfare, with each side viewing the other as an enemy to be routed.
Hardy, with the support of the city's most influential black leaders and, apparently, a significant number of whites, has shifted the focus from points of opposition to points of mutual interest.
Not that the fighting is over. One day after the Hardy compromise was introduced, a federal appeals court denied a full court review of a three-judge panel's decision upholding the plan to end cross- town busing. Henry L. Marsh III of Richmond, the civil rights lawyer who brought the case against the school board, said immediately that he would appeal to the Supreme Court.
That may or may not be a good idea. From here, the Hardy compromise looks like something both sides could live with.