Chicago's two-pronged school crisis

Chicago civil rights groups are concerned that the city school system's financial crisis has sent the issue of school desegragation into the corner for a long wait.

The irony, they argue, is that the school system's plight offers a unique opportunity to make changes that would improve the education of the system's 475 ,000 students -- 81 percent of whom are black or Hispanic.

"This [financial] situation provides a real opportunity to re-examine the system from top to bottom, to see where you're going, to locate programs so they can deal with desegregation in a comprehensive way," says Judson Hickson, an education specialist with the Chicago Urban League.

The key, he says, is whether the current or future school boards will capitalize on this apparent opportunity.

Faced with a $43 million operating deficit and long-term indebtedness of about 10 times that amount, the school board has identified as many as 60 small or underutilized schools, according to a board spokesman. After a series of public hearings, many of those schools may be closed.

But civil rights specialists say that if schools must be closed, such closings should be designed to form new clusters of schools to enhance desegregation.

another option, Mr. Hickson says, is the development of a number of middle schools in a system that now has only seven.

"Most of the programs for seventh and eight graders that are duplicated in a district's 22 elementary schools could be shifted to five middle schools," he says, a consolidation that could save the school board badly needed money.

"If you provide or construct better racially balanced districts and then go to the middle school concept, you could feed a better racial mix into the middle schools and high schools," he adds.

The school board itself has not addressed the issue of integration as it deals with the financial crisis.

"It [desegregation] has not been an item on our agenda because we're just trying to keep the doors open. Desegregation becomes moot if there is no money to keep the schools open," says school board member Carey Preston.

A spokesman for the Chicago office of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) says that to some extent, that position is valid.

"But the NAACP feels the question of desegregation is still the central issue , and it would still be there even if the financial situation were straightened out," he says. "Federal money would have been available to the school system if it had been desegregated."

Moreover, civil rights specialists say that several recent court decisions have ruled out shaky finances as a reason for postponing desegregation.

Officially, the matter of integration in Chicago schools is before the US Justice Department. There, lawyers are trying to determine if grounds exist for court action against the school board.

The case was referred to the Justice Department by the US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare after HEW found the city's voluntary "Access to Excellence" program inadequate to integrate the school system.

Observers here suggest that the Justice Department may be delaying action on the case until after the end of April, when the current school board members are required to hand in their resignations as part of an Illinois state-city-school board aid agreement reached in January. The Current board decided prior to the crisis to fight any Justice Department suit.

As a result, the responsibility for a long- term solution to segregated schools in the nation's second-largest city may rest with Mayor Jane Byrne, who controls the school board appointments.

Observers say the mayor has several options when the resignations come.

She can reappoint some or all of the current board members -- an unwise move politically, according to Mr. Hickson.

She also can accept the resignations, but delay any new appointments. This in effect would keep the current board members in power because they cannot leave office until replacements have been found, observers say.

The last option is to appoint a board that reflects the racial makeup of the school system's student population, as well as that of the city at large -- an option that would be heartily applauded by this city's nonwhite community.

"We would hope to see a new board in place by May so that it could get the new budget together by the July deadline," Mr. Hickson says.

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