It's been almost 34 years since the Tucson Unified School District went under court order to eliminate the vestiges of segregation at 21 schools.

Now, with the district close to emerging from the order, desegregation has become the all-purpose tool to address whatever problems emerge in TUSD.

Student achievement low? Use the desegregation plan to raise it.

Losing students? Bring them back with desegregation money and programs.

Closing schools? Make choices that maximize integration.

The pattern has become so ingrained that the federal judge overseeing desegregation, David Bury, has become a virtual shadow superintendent of TUSD, and the lawyers in the case a shadow school board.

They force the big questions in TUSD through the mold of integration. And not surprisingly, desegregation becomes the answer.

That's a shame, because Tucson needs a strong TUSD, but the district continues to show signs of weakness - its enrollment has dropped by 16 percent over the last 10 years. The desegregation order brings with it additional taxing authority, which this year gives the district about $60 million, or 15 percent, of its budget. With that incentive, it's understandable the district has adapted to court oversight.

But desegregation has been powerless to stop the decline, despite efforts to use it in the district's defense.

Take the Mexican-American plaintiffs' objections last week to TUSD's school closures. They filed an objection to the 11 painful closures the Governing Board announced Dec. 20, saying the district "has failed to use the Master Plan and school closure 'process' as an opportunity to actively promote integration of its schools."

Yes, the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund lawyers used sarcastic quotation marks repeatedly in their filing, to describe the public hearings and school-board meetings that led up to the closures.

Chiming in from Los Angeles, the fund's lawyers also questioned the existence of the district's $17 million budget shortfall and the need to close schools. They called it TUSD's "claimed need to close some schools."

Do they think the closures were some sort of masochistic ritual? Together, they made up only about $5 million of the shortfall.

TUSD has been losing enrollment since the 1997-1998 school year. In the last 10 years, total enrollment has dropped to 51,746 from 61,563.

While getting smaller, the district is also getting poorer. Over the last six years, the proportion of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches has risen to 71 percent from 60 percent.

And the district is becoming browner, as white Anglo enrollment dropped by 46 percent over the last 10 years to 12,019 this year. Latino enrollment grew by 3.5 percent in that period to 32,294, making Latinos 62 percent of total enrollment.

African-American enrollment also fell, from 4,125 to 2,847 in that time, meaning black students now are 5.5 percent of the total.

The Governing Board's new chairwoman, Adelita Grijalva, says one of her top two priorities is to bring back kids who have left the district. Her other priority is increasing student achievement.

Her vehicle for doing both: the proposed new desegregation plan, under consideration now by Bury, which could move the district out from under court order.

"I think it's a good thing for the district. It keeps us focused on the things we need to do," she said.

Parts of the 60-page plan are unquestionably helpful, such as requiring a tracking system to automatically flag students who start to have trouble, or making advanced courses more widely accessible.

But you have to wonder about the utility of others, such as the numerous administrative positions the plan requires the district to either create, or assign existing employees to.

They include a "family engagement coordinator," a "director of multicultural curriculum" and, most controversially, a "coordinator of culturally responsive pedagogy and instruction." This person would oversee whatever ethnic studies program may return to TUSD.

Superintendent John Pedicone told me the plan should make the district more attractive to all.

"There's a danger that people perceive the desegregation order only serves minorities," he said. "If we do this correctly, we ought to be lifting performances of all students."

TUSD's competitors in the charter schools are exploiting the perception of the district as obsessed with race and ethnicity. I saw it myself while attending a Jan. 9 meeting (as a columnist) for parents interested in sending their kids to Basis Schools.

The head of Basis Tucson, Jason Shorbe, told the crowd that other Tucson schools focus on "ethnic and socioeconomic reporting," while at Basis "we don't care about that" - just student achievement.

Rhetoric or reality, Shorbe's message was alluring to many in the standing-room only, ethnically diverse crowd of about 150.

"What attracted me is the different academic thought processes, their level of dedication to excellence," parent Marc Altamirano told me afterward.

Granted, Basis, a chain of charter schools that began here in 1998 and has spread across Arizona, doesn't face a desegregation order.

But it would be refreshing for the district to use this new, hopefully final plan to get out from under the order at last and disentangle its identity from desegregation. The area's biggest school district should be able to craft a plan for long-term success that doesn't need approval by a shadow superintendent or school board.

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Contact columnist Tim Steller at 807-8427 or