The Prince George's County school board last night rejected a plan to cut back sharply on busing and remained frustrated in its attempts to resolve the issue that has generated increasing controversy over the last year.
The plan to revise the six-year-old, court-ordered desegregation program, under which about 80,000 students are bused daily to distant schools, was rejected on a 6-to-3 vote.
It would have allowed about 10,000 more children to walk to neighborhood schools. At the same time, it would probably have led to the creation of up to 10 one-race schools in the suburban county.
The proposal was similar in many respects to several reduced-busing measures the board considered, then abandoned in past months.
Its sponsor, board member Susan B. Bieniasz, said she put it forward as an attempt to address "the dual system of schools we're getting in this county -- a system of private and public schools. We have to do something about that." A return to neighborhood schools, she said, would stop the "white flight" from the public school system.
As was the case with earlier proposals, the Bieniasz plan drew an immediate and critical reaction from black leaders in the county.
"Whether intended or not, the proposal comes down as anti-minority and in this county the minority is black," said Bonnie Johns, the only black on the school board. "The fact is that some of us don't have neighborhood schools to go back to. In many black areas, they have been closed."
Johns argued that the proposal was designed to return children living in predominately white areas to their neighborhood schools. But children living in predominantly black areas, she claimed, either would attend all-black schools or continue to be bused.
Her sentiments were seconded by Josie Bass, president of the county branch of the NAACP, which presented the 1972 lawsuit against the school board that led to court ordered busing. "Neighborhood schools and busing are code words," said Bass. "This is talking about stopping busing for white kids."
Bass also told the board that the NAACP is thinking of reopening the desegregation case "in light of recent school board actions."
Bass cited recent court decisions holding that there can be no intention by a school board of a "purposeful and effective maintenance of separate black schools in a substanial part of the school system."
Then, pointing to the Prince George's board's recent efforts to reduce busing, Bass said, "the board has laid out for us a path right back to court. They had every intention. All of the plans were tabled only because of the citizens. That speaks to the intention."
After the board rejected the latest plan last night, Bass said "common sense" dictated the action. But she said the NAACP still may seek to reopen the court case.
Board member Chester E. Whiting, who joined Bieniaz and Angelo I. Castelli in voting for the proposal, said criticisms were unfounded. "There are loads of black families out there who want this," said Whiting. It's not just because certain communities want it."
Castelli declared: "White flight is happening every day. Every morning you can see white kids getting bused to their private schools and black kids getting bused to predominantly black public schools.It's affecting the whole county. I'm getting letters every day saying, 'Hey, guess who's moving in near you.'"
But Board Chairman Norman H. Saunders, who has put forward several busing reduction proposals in recent months, called Bieniasz's plan "a mongrelized, bastardized demographic study." He said the board should allow a citizen advisory committee that already has been authorized to study the issue to go ahead with its work without interference.
The proposal considered last night would not have produced immediate results, but would have served as a significant first step in a process that could sharply reduce busing by next fall. If it had been approved, Bieniasz's measure would have been sent to a citizen advisory board and the school administration, which would have drawn up the specific school redistricting orders that would result in reduced busing.
Before last night's meeting, head counts indicated there might be the necessary five votes to approve the plan. One of these who later voted against it, A. James Golato, had said, "I'm totally in favor of it." At the meeting, however, he said he could not support the plan as long as the busing advisory committee exists.
Under the original 1973 busing plan, children were bused from what were then white neighborhoods to predominantly black schools and from black neighborhoods to white schools.
The plan was designed to ensure that each school's student body would be at least 10 percent black and that no school would be more than 50 percent black.
But in the six years since U.S. District Court Judge Frank Kaufman ordered the plan into effect, new black families have moved into the county, and the makeup of the neighborhoods has changed. The busing patterns, however, have remained essentially the same.
This has led to situations in which black children are being bused from their integrated neighborhoods to predominantly black schools miles from home.
Since busing began in the county, there has been a 41 percent drop in white enrollment in the public schools and a corresponding 45 percent increase in the number of black students.
As a result, blacks now make up 44 percent of the 127,600 students in the school system. When busing began only 25 percent of the system's 162,000 students were black.
In the last year, several plans have been put forward to update the original busing plan, as school board members sought to stem what they say has been a drastic economic and social decline in the county which is traceable to school busing.
Some of the proposals would have required school administrators to redraw the school attendance zones in an effort to return as many students as possible to their neighborhood schools. Others called for new population studies which could be used to redraw the lines.
Last February, Prince George's County NAACP President William R. Martin secretly negotiated a plan with school board chairman Norman H. Saunders that would have ended virtually all busing of school children living in integrated neighborhoods.
But the plan, which also would have permitted some county schools to become all black, collapsed under heavy fire from other NAACP leaders, and Martin later charged he had been "duped" in the negotiations.
Since then, Bieniasz has worked to put together a more acceptable proposal.
"Prince George's County public schools' present pupil attendance boundaries and transportation plan are obsolete and ineffective to further strengthen the already achieved goals of desegration," she said. "Most of our school students now bused for desegregation could attend schools closer to their homes."