THE tranquillity of this picturesque town, wedged between the Mississippi River and a line of bluffs, masks the controversy caused by a plan that assigns students to public schools according to their family income.
More than three-quarters of the 7,800 students in the La Crosse School District are white. The largest minority representation is Asian. Fifteen years ago, Hmong refugees from Southeast Asia began settling in the area and now make up about 15 percent of the public-school enrollment.
Despite this lack of racial diversity, the La Crosse School District has undertaken an integration experiment that is being watched nationwide.
Last fall, La Crosse opened two new elementary schools to alleviate overcrowding. Because the schools were built on the north and south edges of town, busing was required to fill them.
The principals of Hamilton and Jefferson Elementary Schools on the less-affluent north side of town saw this as an opportunity to distribute poor students more evenly throughout the city's 11 elementary schools.
The question was: ``If you're going to bus some children, which children should you bus?'' says Jay Thurston, the principal at Hamilton. ``Harvey [Witzenburg, the principal at Jefferson] and I got together at Mr. D's Donuts and wrote a letter to the board and the superintendent.'' All the elementary-school principals signed the letter.
Principals Thurston and Witzenburg proposed redrawing school boundaries to include a mix of incomes in all 11 schools.
According to the standards of the federal free-lunch program, about 30 percent of the students in La Crosse are considered poor. Children in a family of four with an annual income of less than $18,655 qualify for a free lunch at school, according to the Department of Agriculture, which administers the program.
Nearly 70 percent of the students enrolled at Hamilton and Jefferson qualified for free lunch. Yet at State Road School, in a wealthy section of town bordering the tree-covered bluffs, only 4 percent of students qualified for free lunches.
``There is a fairly strong feeling on the part of our teaching staff that when you get these high concentrations of children from poor families, there's a price to pay,'' says Richard Swantz, superintendent of schools in La Crosse.
Andrea Mekkelson, a second-grade teacher at Hamilton, knows the educational cost of having mostly poor students in a classroom. During the past 15 years of teaching at the school, she has watched the percentage of needy students increase year after year. ``So many kids come to school in the morning without proper rest or nutrition,'' she says. ``They're dirty. You begin to think, `Maybe I should go back and get my degree in social work so I can help these kids.' ''
There are few role models in schools with high concentrations of poverty, Ms. Mekkelson says. ``These children just don't have experiences to draw on. That has great implications for the atmosphere and what you can do in a classroom.''
It was listening to teachers like Mekkelson and watching the impact of poverty on their schools that convinced Thurston and Witzenburg to propose busing students by income.
``It's not a matter of race but economics that divides our country,'' Witzenburg says.
In 1991, the local school board agreed and adopted the socioeconomic busing plan by an 8-to-1 vote. They set a goal of assigning 15 to 45 percent low-income students in each elementary school.
``That's when all the fireworks started,'' says Superintendent Swantz. ``We had some interesting times there for a while.''
The uproar from parents and other citizens brought a recall election and ultimately led to three school-board elections in two years. Swantz nearly lost his job as well.
Two of three incumbents up for reelection in April 1992 were voted out of office; the third declined to run again. That did not satisfy some opponents, however. Organizing as the Recall Alliance, these citizens began circulating petitions to recall the other six board members. In the summer of 1992, recall elections were held and four new members who opposed the socioeconomic busing plan were elected to the board.
Yet, things flip-flopped again just as quickly. When the three members elected in the recall election had to stand for reelection in the spring, they were all voted out and replaced by candidates who supported the busing plan.
MOST observers agree that the change in school boundaries was not the only issue involved in the public-school uproar. It simply provided a spark to inflame deeper discontent.
``In the eyes of some people, busing was a major issue. Some upper elites did not want their kids to mix with poor kids, but there were other things going on to cause a groundswell of popular opinion to rise up,'' says Joseph Heim, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse who has conducted polls on residents' attitudes about local schools and the socioeconomic busing plan.
Senior citizens and others not affected by the busing plan seized the opportunity to protest rising education taxes, Professor Heim says. ``This is a high-tax area, especially for schools. Over a 20-year period, La Crosse moved from the bottom quartile in education spending statewide to the top quartile. People began to look at the financial issues.''
``The tragedy of it is that there was such a battle declared that people lost sight of compromise,'' says Audrey Kader, the one school-board member who voted against the busing plan and survived the recall election.
``I wasn't against the philosophy of integration,'' she explains. ``The part of it that troubles me is the way it was imposed on people. We didn't need to have the degree of turmoil that we had here for two years.''
Ms. Kader and other opponents of the socioeconomic integration plan consider it elitist and meddlesome. ``Social engineering,'' Kader says. ``Who are we to know better? If families choose to live in a neighborhood [and send their children to the neighborhood school], we should give them the dignity of that choice.''
Much of the controversy has now dissipated. But the busing plan has put La Crosse on the national education map.
``There is the potential for socioeconomic balance to be the educational issue of the future,'' Heim says.
Rather than focusing on race, the La Crosse plan moves the discussion toward economic integration. ``Busing by race, if you do it on a community-wide basis, turns out to be busing by income,'' says Gary Orfield, a professor at Harvard University and a school-desegregation expert.
For the most part, La Crosse's new plan has dispersed Hmong students more evenly throughout the city's schools. But, Swantz says, ``we were very careful to never look at it as a racial issue. It was from the standpoint of poverty.''
Early assessments of the busing plan are mixed.
Ideologically, a number of parents agree with the new plan. ``I don't think children should be taught that because you have money you can live in a separate world,'' says Colette Salyer, the mother of two elementary-school children. ``You have to learn from everybody and realize everybody has something to give.''
But other parents, even those who agreed with the goal of mixing students economically, pulled their children out of the public schools altogether rather than have them bused to schools outside their neighborhood.
Many Hmong parents are pleased that their children are no longer isolated in a few schools with large Hmong populations. Chay Vue, a parent who had several children attending Jefferson, is now sending his children to one of the new schools in town.
``Now they have the chance to mix with all the American children,'' he says through a translator. ``It helped them learn English and taste the American culture.''
At Jefferson, where the percentage of students on free lunch has dropped from 69 percent to 45 percent, Witzenburg sees more friendships between Hmong and white students now that there is a greater ethnic balance. ``They are doing a lot more together by necessity,'' he says.
There have been positive changes at State Road School also, says principal Jerry Novak. The number of children on free lunch increased from 4 percent to 21 percent in one year and is now 15 percent. ``It makes our classrooms much richer,'' he says. ``The kids see what the other side is like.''
But the balance between schools has not been achieved across the board. ``The children at Hamilton School have not benefited,'' Thurston says. The density of poverty surrounding the school makes it difficult to ``gerrymander the boundary'' and provide a mix of incomes, he says.
When the boundaries were redrawn, the district created an ``island'' for Jefferson, drawing more affluent students from the south end of town. No island was created for Hamilton, and in this highly transient area most of the newly enrolled students are poor. As a result, the percentage of students receiving free lunches actually increased at Hamilton.
Some parents have protested and are demanding that something be done about the imbalance at their school.
``It affects my children if there are a lot of kids coming to school with a lot of baggage,'' says Jim Trowbridge, who has three children at Hamilton. ``Philosophically, I'm in support of the socioeconomic balance. But Hamilton has been left out.''
Swantz and the school board, who once came under fire for proposing socioeconomic balance, are now spending their time reassuring parents that the plan will be fine-tuned so that no school is left out.
Meanwhile, Swantz has received calls from superintendents across the United States who are interested in the concept. So far, nearby Wausau, Wis., is the only city experimenting with the idea.
``I think we may have dropped a pebble in the water,'' Swantz says.