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CITY COULD SEE EMPHASIS ON 'THEME SCHOOLS'

The end of Buffalo's school desegregation lawsuit could lead to an increased emphasis on "theme schools" and neighborhood schools and will allow greater flexibility in local decision-making, School Board members said Monday.

At the same time, they warned, already-scarce revenues could be harder to come by without the involvement of U.S. District Judge John T. Curtin, who last week ended two decades of court oversight of city schools.

More schools are expected to adopt particular themes or specialties, like the existing magnet schools do. Efforts also will be made to provide more opportunities for children to attend classes near their homes, four board members said in interviews.

However, they stressed, changes in programming, enrollment patterns and educational philosophy are expected to be moderate, and designed to maintain and enhance the racial integration achieved under court order.

"This is a board that is absolutely committed to the process of school desegregation because it leads to good education," said Sherry L. Byrnes, the North District representative.

Still, the board faces considerable grass-roots pressure to return to the neighborhood school system that was in effect prior to the court case. "I think most people in my district would like to go back to neighborhood schools," said Jack Coyle of the Park District.

But doing that on a widespread basis would jeopardize the city's successful magnet school and early childhood center programs, result in inequitable educational opportunities, resegregate the schools and lead to a new lawsuit, Coyle and other board members said.

School Board President Marlies Wesolowski noted that there are major concerns. If magnet schools were completely dropped, in favor of neighborhood schools, the city would lose $16 million in magnet-specific state aid, she said.

In addition, when Buffalo's enrollment began to decline decades ago, many schools closed, she said. There are therefore neighborhoods in Buffalo that no longer have schools for students to go back to.

Instead, the board likely will explore the possibility of increasing the number of schools with educational themes and specialties, as well as schools that combine magnet and neighborhood components.

"We have license now to do whatever we want, and I see this as an opportunity," said Mrs. Wesolowski. "But these have to be really good programs. Otherwise, it's going to fall flat on its face."

She said the board likely will seek the advice of educational consultants who have assisted other city school systems following the conclusion of court cases.

The fiscal plight of the city schools is also complicated by the end of the lawsuit, because Curtin several times ordered the city to come up with additional money for the desegregation effort. Even without a direct order, the court case provided fiscal leverage in the School Board's dealings with the city and state.

The School Board will now have to do a better job of salesmanship and seeking internal efficiencies, according to Ms. Wesolowski.

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