ATLANTA - The DeKalb County, Ga., School System may soon ask the federal district court here for permission to sell a $58 million bond issue that remains in limbo following a U.S. Supreme Court landmark desegregation ruling six months ago.
The bond offering has been delayed because the school system and the U.S. District Court in Atlanta have agreed that the debt will not be sold until lower federal courts follow through on the Supreme Court ruling.
On March 31, the high court found that DeKalb's school system was mostly desegregated and that it could regain the control it lost to federal authorities in 1969 over student assignment to schools. However, it left actual implementation of the ruling up to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which will initially review the case, and the Atlanta district court. So far, the appeals court has taken no action.
"We had been expecting the appeals court to come out with something a couple of weeks after the Supreme Court's decision." Gary Sams, attorney to the school system, said yesterday.
"But now this thing seems to have fallen in the Black Hole of Calcutta," he continued, "and if we don't hear from the 11th Circuit in the next month, we are going to ask [District Court Judge William C.] O'Kelley to allow us to sell the bonds."
Mr. Sams said DeKalb had originally intended to sell the $58 million of general obligation bonds in two installments. But because of a pressing need for new schools in the fast-growing eastern half of the county, he said, the district will sell the entire amount as soon as allowed to do so. The $58 million is the remaining unissued debt from $98 million of borrowing approved by county voters in March 1989.
For Doyle Oran, director of planning at the school system, the continuing freeze on bond sales could not come at a worse time.
With only $40 million from the authorization sold, just two of the six buildings planned in 1989 have been constructed, Mr. Oran said. This has resulted in overcrowding, he added, which has forced the system to place 4,000 of its 74,000 student in trailers.
According to the system's deputy superintendent. Melvin Johnson, the need for capital funding of schools in DeKalb County is so great, in fact, that the system hopes to move forward with another $100 million bond referendum sometime in 1994.
DeKalb County officials also hope that the lower court review of the Supreme Court's March decision will not only allow the system to sell its bonds, but will also bring an end to 23 years of federal supervision.
That supervision began after a group of local parents won a lawsuit challenging the school system's official policy of separating students by race. In a plan worked out with U.S. District Court in Atlanta, the system agreed to close down its network of all-black schools and establish desegregated attendance zones.
The plan appeared to be working well for the county, which encompasses the eastern half of Atlanta, until anew problem emerged in the mid-1970s.
As many black families moved out of Atlanta and into southeastern DeKalb, swelling the percentage of black students in the system from 6% and 1969 to 47% in 1986, all-black schools once again became common. The school system responded by setting up magnet schools and a busing program that guaranteed transportation for black children wishing to attend white-majority schools.
In 1986, even though half of the county's black students attended schools that were more than 90% black, the system asked to be released from court supervision, claiming that it had done all it could to desegregate.
The district court was sympathetic. In 1988, Judge O'Kelley held that the county was not responsible for remedying segregation due to changes in population. He ruled that the system could regain control of four out of six areas of operation handled by the courts - student assignment, transportation, physical facilities, and extracurricular activities - even though it still was not in compliance with the two other areas - allocation of resources and quality of education.
In October 1989, however, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals slapped down the district court ruling and ordered a massive busing plan for DeKalb. The appeals court insisted that all areas under supervision must be remedied simultaneously, and that the county was, in fact, responsible for reversing segregation caused b population shifts.
The case was immediately appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which handed down its ruling in March.
Mr. Sams said he has "no idea" why the appeals court has taken so long to review the Supreme Court's ruling. But he did note that rumors have been circulating that the delay has resulted from the appeals court writing a new ruling to justify its 1989 recommendation that a busing plan be implemented in DeKalb County.
"I have nothing to substantiate those rumors," he said.
Marcia Borowski, the attorney for the plaintiffs opposing DeKalb's release from court oversight, said she has asked that the appeals court conduct a thorough review of the Supreme Court decision.
Ms. Borowski said a careful reading of the high court's ruling suggests that the justices would favor continued monitoring of student assignment in DeKalb if shown that school policies in this area contribute to racial imbalance in other areas, such as teacher assignment.
A spokesman for the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals refused to comment on the case.
DeKalb County is not the only school system eagerly awaiting final resolution of the Supreme Court's March 31 ruling, according to David Armour, a desegregation consultant and sociology professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.
Mr. Armour said that "dozens" of systems around the country may seek to be released from federal court desegregation orders after the high court's findings are reviewed by the federal district court in Atlanta.
"I think there will be a gradual move on the part of even those school districts that are comfortable with court supervision to seek release, given the day-in, day-out pressure and costs of maintaining desegregation programs," he said.