Arguing that it would require “Herculean” efforts to meet a judge’s order, a federal appeals court ruled Thursday that the public school system in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., will not have to dismantle its landmark race-based school desegregation plan immediately.
The decision by the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., is a victory, albeit temporary and limited, for civic leaders, black parents and school administrators who appealed U.S. District Judge Robert Potter’s Sept. 10 order to end the use of race in assigning students to schools. It is a setback for opponents of school desegregation plans that rely on skin color to decide where students should go to school.
However, the decision does nothing to clear the confusion about which schools Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s 101,000 students will attend when classes begin next fall. In trying to comply with Potter’s decision, even as they filed an appeal against it, officials of the 138-school system agreed last week on a new pupil-assignment plan that did not consider the race of a student.
Under that plan, 32,000 to 35,000 students would be reassigned. Most of them would attend the school closest to their home. Because most people in Charlotte and surrounding Mecklenburg County live in racially segregated communities, the city-county school system essentially would be resegregated by race if that plan takes effect.
“Everything is on hold now,” said Nora Carr, the school system’s assistant superintendent for public information. “Nothing is certain and won’t be until after a special meeting next Tuesday to review the [appeals court] ruling.”
In his Sept. 10 order, Potter said the school system had done all it could to desegregate and was no longer bound by a 1969 court order that made the North Carolina school district the nation’s first to use busing to end school segregation. Potter fought the 1969 order as a private citizen. In his ruling as a federal judge, he reasoned that the school system had “eliminated, to the extent practicable, the vestiges of past discrimination in the traditional areas of school operations.”
Since the 1969 order, Charlotte-Mecklenburg officials have embraced race-based plans in one form or another to maintain a roughly 3-to-2 ratio of white-to-black students in each of its schools.
Legal experts and educators from across the nation have monitored the Charlotte case, largely because the 1969 decision was the first upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court to force reluctant school systems to desegregate.
Black parents and civic leaders in Charlotte were upset by Potter’s decision, which stemmed from a lawsuit brought by seven white parents who wanted an end to the use of race in student assignment plans. Potter, who was appointed to the federal bench by President Reagan and opposed the original court order to desegregate Charlotte’s schools, ruled in favor of the seven plaintiffs. He allowed the existing school term to proceed without changes but demanded that the school board obey his ruling in time for the 2000-01 school year.
In overruling Potter’s order for an immediate end to race-based pupil assignments, a three-member panel of the federal appeals court said that forcing the schools to make the abrupt changes would be harmful to students and too stressful to the community.
“With the start of the 2000-01 school year just a few months away, the task of reassigning approximately 50,000 students would be nothing less than Herculean,” the judges wrote, adding that the disruptions “would likely mean a neglect of individual student needs.”
The appeals court ruling does not negate Potter’s decision but blocks it, pending the court’s review of the merits of the white parents’ case. The order does not set a date for the end of its stay against Potter’s decision. School officials asked for a two-year delay, until a reassignment plan could be drawn up for the 2001-02 school term. Black parents and others, who filed a separate appeal against Potter’s ruling, asked the appeals courts for a permanent injunction.