It was the week before classes and all through the town, thousands of children had absolutely no idea where they would be going to school.

The confusion in the 540,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second largest, is the lastest stage of a 17-year legal battle over busing to achieve racial integration.

It is a battle that proceeds at its own pace, sometimes rapid, sometimes glacial, with the participants -- lawyers, judges, civil rights groups and the antibusing majority of the school board -- all seemingly oblivious to the fact that schools will open Tuesday regardless of who is being bused where.

"When new parents move in from out of state, and you try to explain to them what's going on, they just stare at you with this look on their faces, like, 'My God,' "said a community representative of an elementary school. "You used to be able to sit and talk and explain what would happen. Now there are so many different options."

Busing in the district -- which is 42 percent Hispanic, 27 percent white, 24 percent black and 7 percent Asian -- is not new. It has been going on for two years under a scheme that nearly everyone agreed was not working and was not doing much to stem the exodus of whites from the district.

But last May, after six months of testimony on what should be done to change the plan, Superior Court Judge Paul Egly -- the target of a recall drive by anti-busing forces -- ordered an expanded busing plan designed to integrate more schools while eliminating longer bus rides in the 710-square-mile district.

In ordering the expansion, the judge rejected a proposal by the school board, which has consistenly opposed mandatory busing, that all transportation be voluntary.

His ruling didn't make anyone happy. And it didn't resolve the matter of where students should report for class on Tuesday.

Both the board and the plaintiffs, including the American Civil Liberties Union, appealed to higher courts.

While the appeals were pending, the judge and his aides, with virtually no help from the board, worked on implementation of his ruling. They came up with a busing plan that would involve 271 schools.

Then, early last month, the California court of Appeals told Egly that his criteria for choosing schools for busing were all wrong. So he cut the plan to 177 schools, 54 of them with predominantly minority enrollments and the rest predominantly white.

This didn't make anyone happy, either. And it didn't clear up the confusion, which became even deeper Aug. 25 when the judge issued a "final" plan with only 165 schools. The plan would involve about 80,000 students at a cost of $200 million.

"Any further delay," the judge said "would not be in the interests of the residents of the district."

This plan didn't turn out to be so final. On Sept. 4 the appeals court spoke again, further clouding the situation by eliminating 20 more predominantly white schools from the plan.

All 20 schools had been desegregated last year through a voluntary program in which minority students were bused into white schools, but not vice versa. Civil rights attorneys contend that the program was unfair to minority students. But the appellate court disagreed.

"In the court's view," the appeals judges wrote, voluntary means . . . does not detract from the validity of reality of a school's desegregation. Indeed, it would seem axiomatic that in dealing with such an explosive and emotional issue as forced busing, use of voluntary means of compliance to achieve desegregation is infinitely preferable . . ."

This didn't make anyone happy. And it didn't alleviate the confusion.

The ACLU said it would appeal to the state Supreme Court.

"It's a segregationist ruling," said ACLU lawyer Mark Rosenbaum, "designed to make minority kids pay the burden of desegregation and seeking to minimize to the greatest degree possible white reasignment to minority schools."

The school board announced that it would appeal the whole mess to the U.S. Spreme Court in hopes of putting off all mandatory busing at least until the second semester.