Parents in Petah Tikva's old inner city say they will refuse to enroll their children in a middle school that the city is setting aside for their children while opening a new one in a prosperous neighborhood, allegedly for the purpose of separating pupils by socioeconomic background.

"The city council is behaving in the same pattern as before," said Itzik Luzon, head of the parents committee at the inner city Pika elementary school. Alluding to a city policy of discrimination against students of Ethiopian origin that stirred nationwide controversy last year, he said the city "is bent on disposing of integrationist policies in Petah Tikva's education system. It started with the Ethiopians, then the Russians, and now they're ruthlessly excluding the lower class."

Inner city parents say Petah Tikva's education department bowed to the pressure of parents in the prosperous Em Hamoshavot neighborhood to set up a new school there, while children living in the city center - who went to elementary school with the kids from Em Hamoshavot - will be segregated in the Ahad Ha'am middle school.

"Due to political pressure from the affluent residents of Em Hamoshavot neighborhood, who want their children to study in a ghettoized school and don't want to integrate with less privileged populations, it has been decided that Ahad Ha'am school will enroll only students from underprivileged backgrounds," said Luzon in a letter to the city's education department chairman. "Petah Tikva's decision to increase social inequality, while our country is swept by the demand for social justice, is uncalled for."

A source in the Petah Tikva municipality said Mayor Yitzhak Ohayon chose to placate Em Hamoshavot residents to win their electoral support. "Integration has been an official policy here for 40-odd years," the source said, "but recently the mayor realized that he gets very little support in Em Hamoshavot. He asked residents what they think could be improved, and they said they want their children to study in the neighborhood."

The source said that's why four elementary schools - and now the new middle school - were built in Em Hamoshavot since Ohayon was elected in 1999. However, the source said allegations of segregation are an exaggeration and that the decision was not made in bad faith.

A spokesman for Petah Tikva municipality said "the decision resulted from strictly demographic considerations."

The parents committee of Em Hamoshavot's Bar Lev elementary school welcomed the city's decision to open a new middle school in the neighborhood. "The children of Bar Lev are very happy at the prospect of a new school," said committee chairwoman Hila Lan yesterday. "Opening a middle school in the heart of the neighborhood, within walking distance from our homes, answers the needs and reflects the desires of the residents.

"We are all for integrating students from other backgrounds," she added. "We will welcome students with special needs and open a special class for them. We praise the city for its decision - there was a growing need to improve the children's accessibility to their school in light of their growing number in the neighborhood. We don't want them to be bused to school. The new school will be community-oriented, near our homes, just like things were in the good old days."

City center resident Irena Altman, whose daughter was due to enter Ahad Ha'am school next year, said the parents are ready to take to the streets and protest. "These decisions were taken behind our back," she said, "and we're not willing to put up with it. We will not allow the city to separate underprivileged children and let the academic level drop."

The city's education department slammed the parents committee's decision to boycott the school. "It is a pity," the department said, "that instead of appealing to the district education board or to court, they chose to burden the children as well as the school.

"If you don't register your children in time," the department said, "we will not be able to take different considerations into account in allocating them a place."

The municipality said in a statement that "improving accessibility to schooling facilities featured prominently in parents' requests and the measures were duly approved by the Education Ministry."