Magic Bus

The NAACP's education lawsuit promised to be a watershed case for poor and minority kids. So when exactly did the wheels come off?

 

Eubanks's tidy stucco bungalow sits just southwest of the intersection of West Broadway and Penn Avenue North on Minneapolis's near north side. On the map district officials use to decide where children will go to school, that puts her family in the elongated square known as attendance area 18A.

Before Eubanks pulled her kids out of the public schools, the youngest attended Lincoln Community School, a short hop to the south. A whopping 93 percent of Lincoln's students are poor, according to district data, and state figures show that in the 1998-99 school year all but 15 of its 754 kids were minorities. More important to Eubanks, a recent study spearheaded by the Minneapolis Foundation shows Lincoln living up to just 17 percent of the district's criteria for school performance.

If Eubanks were to live just a few miles further south, in attendance area 33, between Lake Harriet and Edina, her kids would be assigned to a community school called Lake Harriet Upper Campus. There, more than 50 percent of the students are white and just 32 percent come from low-income families. The school met 83 percent of the district's benchmarks in the Minneapolis Foundation study.

The map placing Eubanks's kids at Lincoln, and Linden Hills students at Lake Harriet, can be found in the district's 2000-01 school guide. The booklet lists the buildings designated as each area's "community schools," and includes a brief description of each. Schools in the city's toniest neighborhoods boast computer labs, Internet access, artists in residence, and foreign-language instruction. Some of those with the poorest student bodies and the lowest test scores offer anger-management and conflict-resolution programs along with choir and band.

The Minneapolis Public Schools began its policy of sending most students to community schools in 1995, just months after the NAACP filed its integration suit. At the time district officials--led by then-superintendent Peter Hutchinson, and cheered on by Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton--acknowledged that the move would exacerbate segregation. But that downside would be outweighed by the benefits of having kids go to school close to home.

The move stunned integration backers in the NAACP, says Little. One minute Minneapolis officials were quietly signaling support for the lawsuit, and the next they were implementing a policy that seemed to pursue the opposite goal. "We said, 'Okay, there's nothing wrong with neighborhood schools as long as the neighborhoods are desegregated,'" he recalls. "But as it is now, we would be talking about 'hood schools, not neighborhood schools."

It's true, adds Little, that many minority parents resented the idea that in order to learn, their child needed to travel to a white neighborhood. He sympathizes with those who hoped to simply improve the quality of neighborhood schools. But, he adds, that wasn't going to happen. "As long as African Americans and poor people are trapped without political and economic power...they may do a little patch-up here and a fix there, but things aren't going to really change."

 

In May 1997 a who's who of powerful, liberal Minnesotans gathered for breakfast at the exclusive Minneapolis Club. No one will divulge the exact guest list, but attendees recall that Sayles Belton was there, along with a roster of local corporate do-gooders. Little and Bearman also attended the meeting, which Bearman says was designed to raise money for the NAACP lawsuit "from the business community and so on."

DFL stalwart and publisher Vance Opperman played host. A veteran fundraiser with powerful connections and deep pockets, he wrote out a check for $50,000 and handed it to Bearman and Little. Opperman's was the only check cut that day, but Bearman and Little say they were confident there would be future donations. (Opperman did not return calls seeking comment for this story.)

The NAACP had some cash of its own. It had been reimbursed for its costs connected with the federal housing discrimination case known as Hollman v. Cisneros, and for a discrimination suit it had pressed on behalf of Minneapolis firefighters. With the group's seed money, Opperman's check, and some help from the Minneapolis Foundation, a fund was established to help defray the lawsuit's costs. Foundation officials say the fund received several donations, including a $58,000 contribution from St. Paul's Otto Bremer Foundation for mediation expenses.

Two months after the fundraising breakfast, the NAACP and the state Attorney General's Office jointly hired Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Conflict Management, Inc. to visit Minneapolis and talk to people on both sides of the debate. The firm--whose list of credits includes its involvement in drafting the 1978 Camp David accords between Israel and Egypt--held three public forums and interviewed 150 people. In January 1998 Conflict Management released a report recommending that the two sides attempt to negotiate a settlement.

The process, Bearman says, was designed to be dynamic and grassroots-oriented. "The mediators would meet with all these people, and they would find the common ground," she says. "The beauty of it was the number of stakeholders it was supposed to involve."

Outside the mediation sessions, however, the "stakeholders" had gotten into a slugfest. In October 1997 the district held a farewell party for outgoing superintendent Hutchinson at the Nicollet Island Inn. Forty parents showed up to protest the celebration, saying the district shouldn't fete the architect of a scheme that would increase segregation.

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