Tinsley settlement was a decade in the making

Publication Date: Wednesday Oct 7, 1998

Tinsley settlement was a decade in the making

School officials, judge, parents had no precedent to follow

by Elizabeth Lorenz

The origin of the Tinsley program dates to 1976, when a group of parents--both African American and white--formed after several racially motivated fights among students at Menlo-Atherton High School.

The parents, who eventually organized under the name Midpeninsula Task Force for Integrated Education, were led by Margaret Tinsley, an East Palo Alto woman whose two daughters, Karen and Valarie, attended M-A.

They filed a lawsuit alleging that unconstitutional segregation existed in all the school districts from Palo Alto to San Carlos.

"It was clear that the enrollment statistics proved our case," said Jack Robertson, one of three attorneys representing the plaintiffs. "East Palo Alto was 100 percent black. The other districts were practically all Caucasian."

Named in the suit were the Palo Alto Unified School District, eight elementary districts--Ravenswood, Menlo Park, Redwood City, Las Lomitas, Woodside, Portola Valley, Belmont and San Carlos--and the Sequoia Union High School District. Also named were both the San Mateo and Santa Clara county offices of education, the San Mateo County superintendent of schools, the state Board of Education and the state of California.

The lawsuit eventually named 170 parents and students as plaintiffs, but the three lawyers representing them selected Margaret Tinsley's name to appear at the top, thereby giving her a place in local history. She was picked because she was articulate--and black.

"We wanted to have the first name on the list be a black parent," Robertson said.

San Mateo County Superior Court Judge William Lanam acted as a mediator in the case, at times calling individual districts into his chambers to indicate the merits of different aspects of their cases. "He was mediating behind the scenes," recalled Pat Einfalt, who attended every court hearing as deputy superintendent of Palo Alto schools. "The judge would say (to Palo Alto), 'Look, they've got a case.' Once we stopped fighting it . . . then we started talking about the 'what ifs.'"

School district officials and lawyers spent hours hashing out the details of transportation, special education and other issues, even down to the wording of the first letters to parents.

The settlement, finally reached March 10, 1986, required each district, based on size, to take a certain number of students every year. Palo Alto must take up to 60 students annually. Belmont takes 31; San Carlos takes 26; Menlo Park has 24; Portola Valley takes eight; and Woodside takes five, for a total of 166 students.

The court said that if 60 percent of the students from within a district's geographic boundaries are students of color, it no longer must participate in the voluntary transfer program. The Redwood City School District has met that criterion.

Both the San Mateo and Santa Clara county offices of education were ordered by the court to monitor different aspects of the plan and submit an annual report to the court. Each district does its own academic tracking of individual students.

A committee of representatives and superintendents from each participating district now meets regularly to discuss a wide variety of issues, such as disparities in school schedules and busing.

Although the settlement costs the Ravenswood district about $3,300 for every student it loses to another district Robertson believes the lawsuit has had a silver lining for Ravenswood. The district, he said, "got rid of people who would otherwise be dissatisfied."

The settlement also called for the hiring of a consultant to help Ravenswood create a "model school," to be administered by one or more of the school districts. The model school was never created, but Ravenswood has set up magnet schools and three charter schools, all independent of the voluntary transfer program.

The Tinsley case broke new ground in educational desegregation.

"To our knowledge, there is nothing like this in the United States, with the number of school districts, crossing county lines," Einfalt said.

Robertson agrees. Most other desegregation plans involve only one school district.

Twelve years after the settlement, Robertson says he is "satisfied that those students who volunteer (to transfer) are getting a better education than if they had stayed."

Einfalt is more guarded in her assessment.

"Is it successful? That's the piece that no one can answer for you," Einfalt said. But she pointed out that the attrition rate among Tinsley students is lower than the Palo Alto district's rate as a whole.

"People assumed it was going to be a transient group of people, but that hasn't been the case," Einfalt said. "I think it's choice at its optimum. I think it's a big decision for a family that they're going to put that child on a bus."

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