Monday, July 10, 2000 at 8:26 AM
The use of busing to achieve racial balance in a segregated school district has long been a touchstone of controversy in cities across the state and across the country for more than a generation. Last week in Columbus, the Urban League warned that a lawsuit may be pending over segregation issues that busing failed to solve. Tonight in suburban Cleveland Heights, some local parents will rally to protest busing cut backs, but desegregation won't be on their minds. 90.3's David C. Barnett explains.
DCB- The cities of Cleveland Heights and University Heights to the east of Cleveland form a school district of 7300 students. The defeat of an operating levy last fall led the local school board to issue a series of spending cuts, including the reduction of bus service for about 1200 of those students. Ari Jaffe is a lawyer representing parents who sued to have the busing cuts restored.
Jaffe- There are those who would like to say the busing issue is one of private versus public school. There are some who say it's a racial issue. But the truth is, it doesn't have to do with any of these issues. Busing is a matter of safety.
DCB- Frankie Goldberg is a petite mother of three with big concerns about the path to school. Under the new busing system, her 6-year-old and her 9-year-old will be walking just over a mile each way. On a summer's day, it's a pleasant walk down tree-lined suburban streets. But it's also a walk across some challenging intersections.
Goldberg's lawyer Ari Jaffe says that he doesn't even like to use the term "busing," due to its connection with desegregation disputes of the 1970s. He reframes it as "bus services."
Jaffe- Bus services is a matter of protecting small children. And that's what this is all about, because otherwise, we're going to have children who are very young, whose parents aren't able to walk them to school. Children who themselves don't cross the street alone are supposed to somehow make it up to two miles to school by themselves.
DCB- The state of Ohio requires that children in elementary grades who walk two or more miles to school must have access to bus service. For years, the Cleveland Heights-University Heights district observed a one-mile busing eligibility, but that has now fallen victim to last year's levy failure and a state performance audit which questioned some of the district's past spending practices. In reaction, the school board has extended the bus service limit to just under two miles. School Board President Hodgkiss has no problem with her three kids walking to school -- a half mile to elementary school and about a mile to middle school and another mile to high school.
Hodgkiss- And if the weather is poor, I get in my car and drive them. But, my personal preference is that my children walk to school, because I think they need the exercise and it clears their heads.
DCB- Hodgkiss adds that she sympathizes with children who have to walk the two mile limit, but thinks most of them have parents who can take them to school.
Hodgkiss- They've always had to make arrangements around the school schedule. We are working as hard as we can to provide after-school and before-school programs in the schools so that there is no transportation issue, because we understand that would be very difficult to break up your workday to provide transportation to your child.
DCB- Community concern over the proposed school budget cuts led to another levy campaign this past March, which succeeded. But, the busing cuts remained. District Superintendent Paul Masem's familiarity with local finances and politics prompted him to write a recently-revealed confidential memo to school board members following the levy victory. In it, he strongly suggested restoring the busing cuts. One line states: "We have too much on our plate to be distracted by engaging in a potentially destructive fight over transportation." Another portion reads: "While an argument can be made to restore things other than transportation, one cannot be made that we do not have the money."
Masem- Well, you can't say you don't have the money for anything. It's kind of like looking at your household budget. You could decide to take a vacation, you could pay your gas bill. You make a decision what you're going to spend the money on. So, the money existed to do the transportation. That's what I was saying to the board, not that there was extra money. It's my position that the Board has made a decision and it's my job to carry it out.
DCB- Still, school parents' lawyer Ari Jaffe maintains his optimism that a compromise can be worked out.
Jaffe- Initially, it was 5-0 for cutting busing. After the levy passed and they reconsidered, the vote was 4-1. I'm hoping that other members of the school board check their own consciences and restore bus service. Litigation isn't the way to address these issues.
Masem- It's almost humorous that people who get you into litigation use the litigation cost as a rationale for your doing what they wanted you to do that they brought you to court for. It's pretty common in Ohio to be sued if people disagree with the decision you've made.
DCB- A hearing on the lawsuit is scheduled for July 26th. Meanwhile, the Cleveland Heights/University Heights School Board will hold its regular monthly meeting tonight at 7:30. An hour before, advocates for restoring school busing will hold a rally outside the Board of Education. For now, it looks like that's about as close as the two sides will get on the issue of school transportation. In Cleveland Heights, David C. Barnett, 90.3 WCPN, 90.3 FM.