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The day city school officials dreaded has arrived.

Their use of racial quotas to assign students to schools -- placed on precarious legal ground a year ago by U.S. District Judge John T. Curtin when he ended his oversight of the system -- is under attack.

Eight days ago, a group of community activists in Lovejoy served notice that they want to see changes in School 43, changes that school officials have taken to mean a return to a neighborhood school, instead of an academy in which most students are bused in from other areas.

On Wednesday, a North Buffalo couple sued the district, contending that the racial quotas used to determine admissions at City Honors discriminate against whites. The lawsuit is similar to one that two other white parents threatened to file last month until the district admitted their children to City Honors.

The lawsuits and renewed talk of neighborhood schools have brought to the surface questions and misgivings over the district's continued use of quotas and other race-conscious policies since Curtin declared the district desegregated and free of all court orders.

Once a district has achieved that status, race can only be one of several factors taken into account in assigning students, and not the overriding one. That's different than when the district was under court order and race-conscious policies were not only permitted, but ordered by the court, to end segregation and diversify the work force.

"The law isn't clear about how much a school district can do to maintain racial balance without a court order," said Gary Orfield, an education professor at Harvard University and a nationally recognized expert on school desegregation. "The history shows it's very hard to remain integrated without a plan to do it."

District officials find themselves on the defensive in part because they've done little to reconsider, much less revise, race-conscious policies since Curtin ended the desegregation case.

"The district has dragged its feet," said Paul Weiss, attorney for the North Buffalo couple suing the district. "Judge Curtin issued his decision in October 1995, clarified it in October 1996, and the board hasn't yet implemented a race-neutral admission policy at City Honors. There has to be some impetus for them to change the status quo."

City Honors has become a flash point because admission to the school, along with Olmsted Elementary and Hutchinson-Central Technical Institute, is predicated on academic qualifications. Many experts believe that the use of racial quotas -- the district tries to give minority students 60 percent of the slots in those schools -- to determine admission at such "merit" schools is susceptible to legal challenge.

There's less of a concern over the district's use of similar quotas at other magnet schools, in which admission is determined by lottery, and at early childhood centers and academies, whose attendance boundaries are drawn with an eye on achieving balance.

But a group headed by former Lovejoy Common Council Member Norman Bakos met with district leaders Sept. 26 to discuss School 43. Bakos said participants identified School 43 as one of a half-dozen topics of particular interest and concern to Lovejoy residents, along with issues such as policing and home ownership.

"We want School 43 to be an anchor to the community and a benefit to the community," Bakos said.

According to a report produced by the two college professors who conducted the research, Lovejoy residents perceive the school to be inferior, largely because of discipline and security issues, and don't like extensive busing. The school's enrollment is 67 percent minority, while the surrounding neighborhood is more than 90 percent white.

Bakos insisted that his group is not intent on changing School 43 to a neighborhood school and said "we're a group that's promoting inclusion, not exclusion.

"We don't care if the people going to 43 are black, white, green or purple. What we want is for the school to reconnect with the community and provide the highest quality of education possible," he said.

However, Bill Schroeder, president of the East Lovejoy Business and Taxpayers Association and an active member of the Bakos group, said he'd like the school to revert to neighborhood status.

"We would like to see it worked out that way," he said. "It's not going to happen overnight. It takes a lot of planning and compromising, possibly."

Moreover, Bakos, in a handwritten note to Lovejoy Council Member David Czajka, said his group's objective is "to get School 43 back to a neighborhood school."

School Board President Marlies Wesolowski, whose district includes School 43, said many of the complaints about the school are based on misperceptions and misinformation. She said the suspension rate at School 43 is below average and pupil performance on state proficiency tests is improving.

The district has no immediate plans to change School 43, Mrs. Wesolowski said.

"We're not going to do anything without first looking at the big picture," she said.

Indeed, there doesn't appear to be much support in City Hall for a wholesale return to neighborhood schools.

For starters, they would lead to a resegregation of schools, given the city's housing patters. As it now stands, as a group, the 16 neighborhood schools are the most segregated category of public schools in the city.

Neighborhood-based schools -- educating students who live nearby -- also would fly in the face of the growing support for providing parents with more choice in where they send their children to school.

"I think a wholesale return to neighborhood schools could be counterproductive," Mayor Masiello said. "We need neighborhood schools, but we also need the other kinds of choices that parents want for their kids."

What should the district be doing now that the court case is over?

Orfield, the Harvard professor, said the district will need to develop a more sophisticated process for evaluating and placing students at the merit schools that don't rely so heavily on quotas.

"You have to think about a more complex admission process for gifted programs and other special opportunities," he said.

Masiello said the district should be replicating programs like Honors and Olmsted if that's what the public wants.

"They replicate and expand on what they're doing well," Masiello said.

For the vast majority of schools that aren't merit based, there's a consensus that high quality programs are the key.

Indeed, Lamar Miller, a professor of education at New York University hired by the district to advise it on how to proceed now that the desegregation case is over, said it would be a mistake to focus exclusively on matters of race.

"We're not just talking about a desegregated school system, but one that has quality educational programs," said Miller, a nationally recognized desegregation expert and executive director of the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education.

Central District Board Member Jan Peters said that while maintaining racial balance remains important, it shouldn't be the district's top priority.

"There's a greater focus in people's day-to-day lives over the quality of education their children are receiving rather than the principle of desegregation," she said. "We have to focus people on what the real purpose of public education, which is to educate children."

It's not just whites who are questioning the current state of affairs, Ms. Peters said. Some of the demands of desegregation, such as long bus rides, "are no longer accepted and relished by a lot of people, black, white and Latino," she said.

"The burden of having one's child bused all over the city doesn't make a lot of sense to them anymore. That's the reason why you're finding a lot of support among people of color for neighborhood schools."

Ms. Peters, like the mayor and Mrs. Wesolowski, isn't keen on a wholesale return to neighborhood schools. But she said a major change is in order, with a focus on parental choice and quality programs.

Miller is rounding up a panel of experts that will convene in Buffalo Oct. 28-29 to reflect on what other districts in situations similar to Buffalo have done, and to recommend a course of action to the School Board.

While district officials say their immediate focus is admission policies at Olmsted and Honors, Miller said his group will look at admission procedures at all magnets, and perhaps beyond.

"Since there were no specific guidelines (issued by Curtin in his final order) as they relate to student assignment, everything is subject for dialogue," Miller said.

The district has been reviewing admission procedures for several months, but parents at the schools have not been involved in the deliberations. They want a voice.

"If you have site-based management, you have to involve parents at all levels, not just where you want them," said Lois Mesler, president of the Parent Teachers Student Community Organization at City Honors.

Orfield, of Harvard, said finding ways to preserve diversity amid legal uncertainty represents "a big challenge to educational leaders and the entire community. It's worth spending a lot of time to figure out how we do it."

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