A week after it appeared agreement was close on a desegregation plan, several members of the Prince George's County Board of Education have thrown the future of the desegregation process into question by pushing to appeal the 13-year-old case to the Supreme Court.
Board members say such an appeal would not stall a magnet school plan slated for implementation this fall, a desegregation proposal endorsed by the school board earlier this year and preliminarily approved last week by the federal judge overseeing the case. But those pressing for the appeal say they want to prove that the school system already is legally integrated, thereby ending the judge's jurisdiction in desegregating the schools.
Despite board assurances of support for the magnet system, an appeal of U.S. District Court Judge Frank A. Kaufman's 1983 desegregation order threatens to undermine the process now moving forward in his court. It also promises to divide the board and open old community wounds that seemed close to healing.
The 1983 ruling by Kaufman was based on his finding that the county's system of 175 schools and 105,000 students was not fully integrated. The ruling led to recent proposals to improve desegregation through magnet schools, which are designed to draw students from their segregated neighborhoods, thereby integrating the system.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit has already upheld Kaufman's ruling on an appeal from the school board.
Board members are divided 4 to 4 on whether to petition the court to hear the case, with Chairman Angelo Castelli saying he is undecided. The board expects to take a formal vote next week.
News of the potential appeal was greeted with dismay by a parent organization, black leaders and the county NAACP, which filed the desegregation suit in 1972.
"It's like looney tunes," said Mike Davis, a member of the County Council of PTAs. "They were very close to some resolution . . . this appears to further delay a solution to the problem."
Maryland Sen. Decatur W. Trotter, one of several black leaders who has been vocal on the issue, said: "It's unfortunate at a time when the county seemingly is trying to get its act together . . . there are still those who want to stand in the school door and prevent quality education."
Representatives of the NAACP expressed stronger criticism. "Any school board member who is thinking that way ought to be impeached . . . ," said NAACP spokesman Thomas A. Newman. " 'To hell with the quality of education, we're going to be vindicated.' That's what they're saying."
Board members favoring an appeal said they want to recover more than $500,000 in legal fees and said they believe that pursuing an appeal would give them leverage as they negotiate on a desegregation plan with the NAACP.
Several board members said that at a closed-door session Wednesday night, they were divided evenly on the question, and proponents of an appeal suggested meeting Thursday in the hospital room of the ninth member, Norman Saunders, who said he would vote to appeal. The hospital-room meeting was canceled, however, after several members objected.
Last week, Kaufman gave a green light for implementation of the first phase of the plan to open 30 magnet schools and inject extra "compensatory" funding to upgrade 10 predominantly black schools that the board said cannot be desegregated because of their distance from white schools.
It was at that hearing Friday that Kaufman commended the board and the NAACP for their cooperation.
Board members opposing the appeal cited the $6,200 filing cost, the likelihood that the court will refuse to hear the case, their recent conciliation with the NAACP and the apparent community acceptance of the magnet concept.
"I don't see the need for an appeal at this point," said vice chairwoman Sarah Johnson. "The need is to try to work together. We need to give the magnet plan a chance to work."
Member Paul Shelby said he favored an appeal. "If we won the appeal, we'd be done with it. We're getting along fine with Judge Kaufman, but I would rather the highest court in the land make a decision on whether we're unitary or not."
A survey of board members indicated that Doris Eugene and Lesley Kreimer also support the appeal. Those opposing, in addition to Johnson, are Catherine Burch, Thomas Hendershot and Barbara Martin.