The Norfolk School Board voted today to abandon the crosstown busing that successfully integrated public education in this port city in favor of a neighborhood enrollment plan that would resegregate half its elementary schools.
The 5-to-2 vote against busing, supported by the board's four-member white majority and by one black, would make Norfolk the first city in the nation to successfully desegregate and then abandon its integration plan, according to lawyers here.
School leaders said they will seek the blessing of a federal judge for their action, which they described as the only way to stop the continuing white flight that they said soon would leave Norfolk with many virtually all-black schools.
Black supporters of busing, who promised to fight the new plan in the courts, immediately labeled the new plan unconstitutional and discriminatory. They said the proposal was particularly unfortunate in light of the Reagan administration's opposition to court-ordered busing plans in other parts of the country.
"They might use fancy terms, deceptive terms like 'neighborhood schools,' but the bottom line is segregation," said L. P. Watson, a minister and the head of the Norfolk NAACP branch. "Once they commence, they can always come up with reasons to do more, until you'll be right back where you were before 1954."
The vote today capped 16 months of often emotional debate in a city of 267,000 that has prided itself on harmonious race relations. Even during Virginia's era of massive resistance to integration, when the governor closed Norfolk's schools for about six months in 1958 rather than allow blacks into a white high school, the city's business establishment fought to reopen the schools.
The establishment also sought to limit the scope of school integration, however, through "freedom of choice" plans -- and, when a federal judge finally mandated busing in 1970, by charging students for their bus rides. Black leaders said the neighborhood plan adopted today, which would allow blacks to transfer voluntarily to white majority schools, was an ominous echo of those earlier plans.
Watson said the city's white elite wants to stop whites from fleeing to such suburbs as Virginia Beach chiefly because it does not want blacks to gain political control as they have done in Richmond, Washington and many other cities. Virginia Beach recently eclipsed Norfolk to become the state's most populous city with 273,000 residents.
Norfolk, now 35 percent black, never has elected more than one black to its seven-member city council.
Supporters of the neighborhood school plan said the integrated school faculty and administration -- the system's first black superintendent will take office in June -- should convince black parents that resegregated elementary schools will not return Norfolk to the old days.
"Our society will never again tolerate anything but a unitary system," said white school board member Jean C. Bruce, speaking with a Tidewater lilt. "That's what our future is going to be, an integrated society, and we no longer need an artificial tool to maintain it."
School statistics show, however, that about 20,000 of Norfolk's 35,000 public school pupils have to be bused -- some of them as far as 14 miles each day -- to integrate the schools. Many of the city's whites live in the north, around the Navy Base, and most of the blacks are clustered in the "parks," or housing projects, that the city built in its southern end during a massive redevelopment effort after World War II.
As a result, under the neighborhood plan adopted yesterday, 10 of the city's 36 elementary schools would be virtually all black, and 18 schools would be at least 70 percent one race. Busing would continue for junior and senior high schools, leaving most of the upper schools between 60 and 70 percent black.
The Norfolk proposal adopted today resembles a plan promoted by the Justice Department in East Baton Rouge, La., where federal lawyers are arguing against busing after having supported it two years ago. Justice said busing there has accelerated white flight to private schools and the suburbs and should be replaced with neighborhood schools and some schools with advanced and diverse programs that would encourage voluntary integration.
Thomas G. Johnson Jr., the white Norfolk school board chairman who wrote the plan adopted yesterday, said he regrets the creation of all-black schools, but believes the alternative to be worse. "I think the facts tell us we're losing the middle class in this city," Johnson said, referring to the school system's reversal from 60 percent white students when busing began to 61 percent black students now.
"If we don't have the will to act . . . we'll be desegregating schools to have a resegregated school system."
To counter the most persistent argument against his plan--that all-black schools would receive the official back of the hand they did before integration--Johnson suggested returning the system to the supervision of the federal courts, which would review school spending each year.
Johnson said he does not believe the recent refusal of the Supreme Court to hear a school desegregation case from Nashville, which the Reagan administration had hoped to use as a test case against busing, would affect Norfolk, which was declared integrated by a federal judge in 1975. But Johnson acknowledged "things would have to really click for us" in court for his plan to take effect in September.
Lucy R. Wilson, a black administrator at Old Dominion University and the most recent appointee to the school board, said she fears black schools will suffer even with the safeguards Johnson proposed.
"It was integration itself that caused black neighborhood schools to be treated more equitably," Wilson said. "It is not at all clear to me how we can speak of a commitment to desegregation, and at the same time countenance a plan that fosters segregation."