A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals here upheld a decision today that would end busing of elementary school children for desegregation in Norfolk, a ruling that could prompt similar challenges to court-ordered busing across the nation.
The decision permits the Norfolk School Board to implement a plan adopted three years ago in an effort to discourage "white flight" from the city's schools. The plan would create 35 neighborhood schools -- 10 of them nearly all black -- for children from kindergarten through grade six, while continuing crosstown busing for students in grades seven through 12.
Opponents of the plan, including the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, argued that it would unravel 30 years of efforts to integrate and equalize the nation's schools.
The Justice Department intervened in the case a year ago, urging the appeals court to allow Norfolk to dismantle the 14-year-old integration plan. Although the Reagan administration has consistently refused to support new attempts at busing for desegregation, the Norfolk case marked the first time it had endorsed abandoning previously ordered busing.
Jack E. Greer, an attorney for the Norfolk School Board, said a clerk of the appeals court called him late today and said the July 1984 decision of U.S. District Court Judge John A. MacKenzie had been "affirmed without dissent."
MacKenzie had said in his ruling that the "solution proposed by the board is a reasonable one and was a result of reasoned consideration."
Paul R. Riddick, one of 22 blacks who appealed MacKenzie's decision, said he was "somewhat suprised" by today's ruling. He said the plaintiffs probably will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Norfolk School Board Chairman Thomas G. Johnson said he favors implementing the plan in the fall. The board's next regularly scheduled meeting is next Thursday. "I don't know how likely it is that the Supreme Court will hear it," he said, because the three appellate judges agreed.
"We were free to implement the plan after the District Court decision," board attorney Greer said, "but we wanted to allow a second court to hear it."
Johnson, the primary architect of the plan, said at its adoption that he regretted creating all-black schools but believed the alternative, continued busing leading to white flight, was worse. "We're losing the middle class in this city," he said.
Cynthia Heide, the board's vice chairman, said today's decision did not mean that busing automatically will end. "I won't second-guess the board on that," she said, adding that "we all want to digest the opinion," which she had not yet seen. "I hope no one wants to rush."
Heide, one of the four white members of the seven-member board, said that while she had voted for the neighborhood school plan, she has "real philosophical feelings" that are not relieved by today's action.
The primary reason for the 1983 action was to halt white flight, Heide said, "and we haven't seen a racial change in a number of years. The largest decline in white population occurred in the early 1970s," shortly after busing began.
When Judge MacKenzie ordered busing in 1971, the Norfolk schools had 56,000 students, 60 percent of whom were white. Today, the 35,000-student system is 59 percent black.
MacKenzie declared the Norfolk system unitary, or free of the remnants of the old dual system, in 1975, but the School Board chose to continue the busing until it adopted the neighborhood school plan in 1983. Supporters of the plan said that if busing continued, the Norfolk schools might become virtually all black, a situation shared by many big-city systems across the country.
The desegregation plan requires some children to ride up to 14 miles to school. Norfolk, with a population of 265,000, was long Virginia's most populous city, but in recent years lost that distinction to adjoining Virginia Beach, which is overwhelmingly white.
Assistant U.S. Attorney General William Bradford Reynolds, head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, argued before the appeals panel in January 1985 that the Norfolk case represented a major turning point in the history of school desegregation.
Reynolds called the Norfolk proposal "perfectly constitutional" and said the Norfolk schools had complied with desegregation orders and were "entitled to be treated just as any other unitary system."
The appeals court panel was composed of Judges James M. Sprouse of West Virginia, H. Emory Widener Jr. of Virginia and Sam J. Ervin III of North Carolina. Greer said he was not told which judge wrote the opinion.