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Aftershock: Desegregation School Busing

Former Denver Public Schools transportation director recalls the forced busing mandate to end segregation there and the massive bus bombing that punctuated its implementation

On Feb. 5, 1970, a series of explosions beginning at about 9:30 p.m. rocked the Denver Public Schools bus yard, destroying 24 school buses and severely damaging 15 others, comprising nearly a third of the fleet. The New York Times reported that 12 dynamite bombs were set off under the gas tanks of the buses. Damage estimates were set at $200,000, the equivalent of nearly $1.5 million today.

The paper also reported that three young white men were seen running from the area shortly before the explosions. The acting fire chief at the time was quoted saying, “In my opinion, it was a strictly professional job.”

News reports at the time speculated that the bombing was in response to a school board plan launched the previous spring to use busing to desegregate the use of the buses to implement a U.S. District Court-ordered plan to desegregate Denver schools. The order resulted from a lawsuit filed by eight Denver families alleging that schools in northeast Denver were segregated and provided unequal education. The community was divided, especially on the question of busing, which was generally seen as a means to integrate schools. The case, Keyes v. School District No. 1, eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld the earlier ruling.

Nicole Portee on board a Denver school bus in 2018, shortly before she was named School Transportation News Transportation Director of the Year.
Nicole Portee on board a Denver school bus in 2018, shortly before she was named School Transportation News Transportation Director of the Year.

This turbulence was part of the legacy of the district’s student transportation operation, which was inherited by Nicole Portee when she took over as the executive director of Denver Public School 40 years later in 2010. That legacy, in part, helped shape her goals as the district’s transportation leader.

Related: Nicole Portee discusses the impact of desegregation school busing and more on this week’s episode of the School Transportation Nation podcast.

Portee, now the assistant superintendent of operations for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina, lived through that legacy because she grew up in northeast Denver. While she was not a student at the time of the bombing, she was an unwilling participant in the desegregation plan.

“I was a product of the actual forced busing,” Portee recalled. “I was literally forced to ride the bus past my neighborhood school in northeast Denver to another school as a tool of desegregation.”

Portee said she exchanged a 15-minute ride to her neighborhood East High School for a 45-minute ride to South High. “At the time you wanted to go to the same high school as your friends,” Portee said. “I ended up loving the high school I attended and graduated from, but I didn’t like it at the time. I did not understand what was happening at first. Back in those days parents kept you sheltered and protected and hoped you got a good education. It wasn’t until I worked for the district that I realized how busing played a role in desegregating the schools.”

At the time, media reports stated that DPS bought an additional 27 buses to implement the plan and transported 9,900 students of the district’s total of 93,000 students. Portee noted that DPS had grown to about 350 buses and transported about 30,000 students when she left the district in 2019 to become the senior executive director for operations systems and support services for the Guilford Public Schools System in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Nicole Portee (right) poses with Dave Armbrecht, director of regional operations for Cook-Illinois Corporation, and special needs attorney Betsey Helfrich following a panel discussion regarding video on the school bus at TSD Conference 2019.

Portee said that while she didn’t understand the significance of the busing plan as a teenager, it played a significant role in her decision to work for DPS.

“It convinced me that I could be a difference and that I could make a difference by understanding all of the benefits of knowing how transportation works and how it benefits families in gaining access to schools,” she explained.

Portee, who was named the 2018 Transportation Director of the Year by School Transportation News while at DPS, said one of her goals was to change the negative perception the desegregation plan gave student transportation, adding that DPS had since converted to an open enrollment system that allowed parents to select the school their children would attend. Her job was to get them there.

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“As I started to learn about the desegregation case and the bombing, I began to think that in my role as transportation director, how do I educate families on the importance of transportation to their children’s education,” she said. “I wanted to at least provide as much information as possible about school transportation as a gateway to a great education.”

Portee said open enrollment changed the nature of student transportation in DPS. “At that point transportation became one of the resources families needed in order to access those choices,” Portee remembered, adding that the ill effects of the busing mandate were always in the back of her mind. “Now I thought, how do I create a transportation system that would provide access to the schools they chose.”

Portee said she felt she and her team had erased the negative perception that forced busing had on student transportation at DPS.

“With the leadership team there at that time, I did achieve the goal of creating a transportation system that supported education, provided access to students and gave parents more of a choice rather than what forced busing had done,” Portee said. “To know the history of transportation here and having had the opportunity to lead this operation knowing the history of the school district only added to my inspiration.”

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