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  • File photos Students at Bunche Elementary School in this 2004 photo reflect the diversity the magnet school program has brought to inner-city classrooms in Fort Wayne Community Schools. The number of families seeking magnet programs and intra-district transfers grew this year.

  • William L. Taylor, a Washington, D.C., civil rights attorney, was joined by Marie Williams, vice president of Parents for Quality Education with Integration Inc., to announce a lawsuit against FWCS in 1986. An out-of-court settlement was reached in 1989, establishing the Racial Balance Fund.

Sunday, February 04, 2018 1:00 am

Getting the balance right

As change looms, FWCS reaffirms commitment to desegregation

KAREN FRANCISCO | The Journal Gazette

When an agreement was reached in the “wrenching and divisive” debate over desegregation of Fort Wayne Community Schools in 1989, the News-Sentinel summed up its view in an editorial: “Kiss the Fort Wayne Community Schools system goodbye.”

Nearly three decades later, Fort Wayne Community Schools is the largest public school district in Indiana. The magnet program established by consent decree is thriving. The urban district's graduation rate tops the state average and its superintendent for the past 15 years is a finalist for National Superintendent of the Year. 

And the target of the editorial's wrath – “reckless pursuit of racial balance” – deserves much credit for the district's success. A commitment to a system of magnet schools and districtwide choice helped ensure the quality of all of its schools and programs, even as poverty rates climbed and state policymakers supported changes that threaten strong public schools.

“The bottom line is that you see the effects in a dropout rate that is substantially reduced, a strong graduation rate, a commitment to an overall culture in our schools that keeps our schools pretty darn safe,” said school board member Steve Corona, who was president of the board when a settlement in the Parents for Quality Education and Integration lawsuit was reached. “Without those racial balance dollars, we wouldn't have been able to do the things that have made a difference.”

With a change in state law, the legislatively prescribed Racial Balance Fund is eliminated next year, but the school board approved a resolution last week affirming its commitment to efforts supported by the fund. The desegregation order outlining how property tax dollars would be used for educational improvements expired after the 1996-97 school year, but the school board has continued to make the investments for 20 years. 

Now, it's important to pause and consider the role the seminal agreement held – not in destroying Fort Wayne Community Schools, but in preserving it as a strong district committed to serving all students.

Breaking point

In the wake of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, schools across the nation were forced to confront the U.S. Supreme Court's decision that  “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” In Fort Wayne, the district began planning in late 1967 to integrate its high schools and middle schools. Central High School closed and was converted to a vocational program in 1971, as Northrop and Wayne high schools opened and attendance boundaries were redrawn to achieve racial balance.

But elementary school boundaries were left unchanged. Parents – both black and white – began to protest the stark disparities they saw between inner-city schools and the newer buildings in suburban neighborhoods. An investigation by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights found enrollment at 22 of the district's 36 elementary schools was “severely imbalanced.”

Superintendent Bill Anthis resisted desegregation efforts and the school board in 1985 rejected a plan to bus elementary students to achieve racial balance, instead approving a  “Direction for Tomorrow” plan that included a magnet program. The plan required a $5 million tax increase, however, and voters turned it down.

A group of parents who months earlier had formed a non-profit organization, Parents for Quality Education and Integration, filed suit in 1986, their legal fight financed personally by Lincoln National Life executive Ian Rolland, whose children attended one of the newer schools.

“The observation we made and those who were allied with me was there had to be the ability on the part of the kids, mainly black kids who were getting a bad shake in Fort Wayne public schools, to give them a new lease on life,” Rolland recalled in a 2016 interview. The former chairman and CEO of Lincoln, who died July 1, 2017, hired prominent civil rights attorney William Taylor to represent the parent group.

A breakthrough

The lawsuit stretched on for years, punctuated by angry exchanges as Rolland and others pushed for a settlement the plaintiffs could accept. A trial date was eventually set, but changes were happening within the school board. In an interview last week, Corona credited a new state law requiring elected rather than appointed board members. After the 1988 election, newly elected board member Lee Mohrman joined Corona, Helen Brown and Bettye Poignard in supporting the out-of-court settlement.

Overseen by a federal judge, the consent decree laid out the specifics for the racial balance fund, magnet schools, transportation, extracurricular activities, marketing and more. A timetable was established and legislation filed to create the Racial Balance Fund by allocating a portion of Capital Projects Fund dollars for that purpose. While the new fund didn't represent an increase in taxpayers' liability, it did reduce the amount available for building improvements.

While the community struggled to reach a desegregation plan, it supported the plan wholeheartedly once it was put into motion.

In 1998, the Christian Science Monitor highlighted Fort Wayne's support for the program in an article that contrasted efforts elsewhere to dismantle busing programs.

“Many cities have witnessed the flight of the middle class and an increased isolation of racial groups. Neighborhoods have fought bitter battles to avoid having their children attend distant schools away from friends,” the article noted. “As a result, many cities, including nearby Indianapolis, Ind., and Grand Rapids and Benton Harbor in Michigan, are eager to end busing as a means to ease racial segregation. ... In Fort Wayne, however, adults and students alike want to keep those buses rolling.”

The article quoted two black and two white students at North Side High School on how they might react if racial balance efforts ended.

“No way. We'd strike. We'd rebel. We wouldn't come to school anymore,” the four insist collectively. “It wouldn't work,” Katrina McGhee says forcefully. “We'd miss each other,” Amber Vegan adds simply.

FWCS spokeswoman Krista Stockman observed last week that the changes implemented under the desegregation plan are still popular today. 

“Unlike other places, this (school) system actually made it work, and the community embraced it,” she said.

The plan implemented school choice long before it became the mantra of charter and voucher advocates, opening all of the districts' schools to students anywhere within its boundaries. The magnet programs remain, although they have been changed over the years, including the addition of an expanded Montessori program at Towles Intermediate School – the first such program in Indiana – and New Tech Academy at Wayne.

When the annual choice lottery took place last month, more than 1,500 students applied for spots at magnet schools or in schools outside their neighborhood attendance area. The preschool program at Bunche Montessori Early Childhood Center has a waiting list as long as the magnet school's total enrollment, Stockman said.

Kathy Friend, chief financial officer for the district, noted that the desegregation agreement allowed flexibility.

“The way we've used Racial Balance Funds over the years has changed,” she said. “We've been careful to use it in ways we thought the community would support the intentions of the agreement, but every one of our schools has different needs now and Racial Balance Funds can help cover them all.”

Continued commitment

The legislative change that prompted new attention to racial balance came in the form of House Enrolled Act 1009, which streamlines school funding by eliminating the General Fund, from which school salaries and instructional costs are paid, along with the Capital Projects, Transportation and Bus Replacement funds. Tuition support, which comes primarily from state income tax revenue, will now go to each school district's Education Fund. The property tax-supported funds will flow to an Operations Fund. The changes go into effect in 2019.

Because FWCS' Racial Balance Fund was unique to Fort Wayne schools, some legislative housekeeping is in order. Senate Bill 43, authored by Sen. Andy Zay, R-Huntington, and Sen. Liz Brown, R-Fort Wayne, was approved unanimously last week by the Senate Education and Career Development Committee. It repeals the 30-year-old legislation establishing the fund and transfers the money to the Operations Fund.

Friend said flexibility under the state's new rules should allow the district to continue spending the money as it sees fit to support all of its schools.

“In my mind, it is still a priority to target our spending in ways that support the Racial Balance program so we don't lose the importance of those priorities,” she said. “We're certainly not going to increase our capital projects (spending) and not have racial balance at all.”

For its part, the school board is committed to that course, as well.

“The FWCS board remains committed to providing all students with a quality education, as well as continuing the programs that were developed as part of the agreement in creating the Racial Balance Fund,” board President Julie Hollingsworth said last week. “We will still have the ability to use these funds in the same manner by enhancing learning opportunities for students and developing the abilities of our teaching staff.”

But Corona, the lone member to have served with and without the desegregation agreement, wonders whether a stronger board resolution might be warranted to ensure future boards and administrators don't lose sight of its value.

At the least, it's worth reminding the community it was not the death knell for Fort Wayne Community Schools some predicted. In 1989, this page wholeheartedly endorsed the settlement reached between the district and parents seeking integrated schools.

“Surely everyone who has hoped and prayed for the end of racial isolation in the elementary schools will want to endorse this plan enthusiastically,” we wrote in 1989. The strength of the district today stands as testament to the enduring strength and value of the 1989 agreement.

Karen Francisco is editorial page editor of The Journal Gazette.