School busing, which became an issue during the Democratic presidential debate last month, is part of the plan that got Decatur City Schools unitary status and is something that will continue, said Superintendent Michael Douglas.

“Just because we have unitary status doesn’t mean we can do whatever we want,” he said.

Without busing, Decatur would have racially identifiable schools, something the U.S. Supreme Court said in 1968 school systems had to eliminate to gain unitary status, which is an end to court-supervised desegregation oversight.

In a 12-page ruling last month, Federal District Judge R. David Proctor granted Decatur unitary status, meaning the district had successfully met every legal requirement to show that it was not operating a segregated, or “dual” school system — one for white and one for black students.

Sen. Kamala Harris of California interjected busing into the Democratic debate when she criticized candidate Joe Biden for his opposition to mandatory school busing when he was a senator in the 1970s.

Harris, who is black, said she benefited from busing as an elementary school student in Berkeley, California, in the early 1970s.

After a Democratic Party picnic recently in West Des Moines, Iowa, reporters quizzed Harris about whether she supports federally mandated busing.

“I think of busing as being in the toolbox of what is available and what can be used for the goal of desegregating America’s schools,” she told The Associated Press.

Asked to clarify whether she supports federally mandated busing, she replied, “I believe that any tool that is in the toolbox should be considered by a school district.”

Biden’s campaign has accused Harris of distorting his record. He was, however an outspoken opponent of federally mandated busing in the 1970s and ’80s, and at one point sponsored a congressional measure that would have limited funding for federal busing efforts.

Busing was not part of the plan Decatur filed in 1970 to desegregate schools, but without it the district found it hard to gain unitary status, primarily because residential living patterns created schools that could be identified by race.

To achieve racial balance, Decatur City Schools conducted several studies and made several changes, including closing Lakeside Elementary (now Leon Sheffield) and Westlawn Elementary (now Benjamin Davis Magnet) as neighborhood schools in 1979. Lakeside and Westlawn were previously all-black schools.

The district’s current situation with busing, however, did not come until the school board constructed Banks-Caddell Elementary and Leon Sheffield became the magnet school for grades 3-5.

In a 2002 court filing, the school board said “continuation of the involuntary transfer of minority students to achieve racial balance is no longer practicable.”

During a fairness hearing in 2004, a plan was announced to establish a magnet program at Leon Sheffield, and the courts considered it a “valid desegregation measure” because Decatur City Schools’ plan would not make it a “racially identifiable school.”

Part of the plan established satellite zones in predominantly black Northwest Decatur that bused students to Eastwood Elementary and Chestnut Grove Elementary, schools in predominantly white areas of Decatur.

Tommy Sykes, who is black and served on the school board from 1989-2004, supported the plan because the district also bused white students to the magnet schools.

“We were trying to eliminate schools that looked white or black,” he said.

By having a magnet school, Sykes said, the district thought it would “stop white flight” because too many white students were leaving Decatur for other school districts.

Decatur’s overall student population has not changed significantly since 2004, but white students are no longer the majority.

Sykes, who opposed Decatur getting unitary status, said the school board should revisit the busing matter and look at what “educational impact” it has had on black students leaving neighborhood schools.

Douglas said about 30 students are bused from Northwest Decatur to Eastwood Elementary and about 50 to Chestnut Grove Elementary.

He said Decatur City Schools could stop busing, but can’t do away with the satellite zones “because that would be a return to racially segregated schools” and could land Decatur back in federal court.

— deangelo@decaturdaily.com or 256-340-2469. Twitter @DD_Deangelo.

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