Monday, March 12, 2007

TOP STORY >>N. Pulaski district gets boost

IN SHORT: A bill that would help clear way for Jacksonville district, and help end court desegregation monitoring passes House and now moves to the Senate.

Leader staff writer

A bill requiring the state Education Department to hire consultants to guide Pulaski County school districts from their sprawling-but-well-intentioned desegregation consent decree to the promised land of unitary status — free from court supervision — passed the state House of Representatives Friday 93-1.

The bill now moves to the Senate.

The handiwork of state Rep. Will Bond, D-Jacksonville, House Bill 1829 could clear the way for an eventual standalone Jacksonville school district, but regardless, it is designed to bring to an orderly close the expensive 18-year-old consent decree under which the Pulaski County Special School District and the North Little Rock and Little Rock districts have operated, Bond said Friday.

Federal District Judge Bill Wilson ruled about two weeks ago that Little Rock had in fact achieved unitary status, though that district will continue to receive a share of the supplemental $60 million a year provided by the state, Bond said.

Over the life of the decree, the state has supplemented the three districts to the tune of about $700 million, Bond said.

He said the bill, which is expected to go to the Senate Education Committee perhaps as early as Wednesday, puts the state Education Department in a position where it can go to court and it offers districts a carrot by providing opportunities to recover attorneys’ fees and costs and also a gradual phase out of the extra state monetary support.

“We need to figure out a way to phase out 15 years of desegregation funding,” he added.

Bond said he hadn’t yet lined up a Senate sponsor because everyone had been consumed with bills increasing the funding for state foundation aid to schools—aid based on the number of students in each district.

Bond said the Jacksonville area was “ready for autonomy, especially regarding facilities, ready to make decisions for their kids.

“The county has realized Jackson-ville is better suited to deal with its own facilities issues,” he said.

He stressed that the bill doesn’t mandate a Jacksonville district, but would remove current impediments.

“I think it’s a step in the right direction,” state Sen. John Paul Capps, D-Searcy, said Friday. “I’m really glad that he did that. He’s been real courageous.”

Capps said he would support the bill in the Senate “in every way possible.”

“It has immense possibility for Jacksonville to eventually have its own school district. Jacksonville must have its own school district if it’s going to grow economically and culturally.

“If these two districts will get out of court, so much more money can be used for education,” Capps said. “It’s the right thing to do.”

Bond said that the districts have said they’ve met unitary, or desegregated, status but said the threat of losing extra state funding has created a “disincentive” from asking a federal judge to end monitoring.

Currently the state kicks in about $60 million a year for desegregation-related expenses like busing. Pulaski County’s share of that is about $15 million—about 10 percent of the 18,000-student district’s annual budget.

The bill would require the state Education Department to hire a qualified desegregation consultant by October 1 and to seek federal court review and determination of current unitary status and also to seek modification of the current consent decree so that the state could craft a post-unitary agreement, phasing out the desegregation funding until all such funds were spent by an agreed-upon date. Bond’s companion bills, still in committee, would provide $500,000 to reimburse the attorney general’s office for legal fees spent seeking unitary status and $1 million to hire desegregation consultants.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.