Wednesday, June 29, 2011

EDITORIAL >> New leader for PCSSD

The Pulaski County Special School District desegregation case gets more complicated every day, but at least now there’s a longterm superintendent in place to succeed Bobby Lester, who stepped in temporarily last week to replace Charles Hopson. Lester was an emergency fill-in when the state Education Department took control of the failing district and fired Hopson and the school board.

Jerry Guess, a former Arkansas superintendent of the year, is the new man in charge. He was the superintendent of the Camden Fairview district in Ouachita County for 15 years. He’ll be around here for a while: The state could run PCSSD for several years before there’s local control of the schools again.

Almost every day, there’s a new twist to this never-ending saga. The judge overseeing the court case walked away from it Friday evening, hoping the media wouldn’t notice as reporters and most everyone else headed home or to the lake.

U.S. District Judge Brian Miller, who last month abruptly ended desegregation funding to the Pulaski County districts, didn’t help matters when he decided he had a conflict of interest since his brother was fired from the Helena-West Helena School District after the state took it over the same time PCSSD became a ward of the state. Miller didn’t disclose that he served on a bank advisory board in Helena which funds local public and charter schools.

He had a bad time of it last week, which started out with the state taking over the two districts. The next day, the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals stayed Miller’s ill-considered order ending desegregation funds for the Pulaski County districts. The appeals court will let the state aid continue at least until September, when the court will then hear arguments from the districts to keep the money flowing.

Miller didn’t have a grasp of the issues. He ruled on matters that he had no business deciding — such as ending support for magnet and majority-to-minority transfers — which makes you wonder why he took the PCSSD lawsuit in the first place.

If Miller’s decision to suddenly end desegregation aid was one of the worst of the last 25 years — that’s how long the suit has been in the courts — you have to applaud the better judgment of the appeals court that halted Miller’s muddled ruling and let state aid continue at least for a few more months.

The problems of the failed schools in Helena-West Helena and Jacksonville will take decades and lots of money to fix. It costs a lot of money to educate disadvantaged kids — $1 billion in deseg money for the Pulaski County schools — with no guarantees of success. But what else can the state do? Let 14-year-olds drop out of high school?

You could say the Arkansas Delta starts at the entrance to Jacksonville High School and ends on the west bank of the Mississippi River. But that doesn’t mean poor kids don’t have a right to a first-class education. Doing nothing would save the state billions of dollars, and maybe Miller would approve, but it no longer matters what he thinks. A new judge has replaced him, and perhaps he’ll make wiser decisions.

Miller is no Judge George Howard, his predecessor on the court, or even John Walker, the plaintiffs’ lawyer in the long-running case that has provided a good living for Walker. He will stick around and so will this endless lawsuit, but at least Judge Miller, who was the wrong person to hear the suit, is now off the case.

Walker, who has litigated the lawsuit since before public school students were born, is demanding the state rescind its takeover of the district. Even if he doesn’t get his way, the parties should come together and agree to make genuine improvements in the failing schools.

This is a good time for the school districts to negotiate a deal with the state that might guarantee them $70 million through the next school year. Miller’s order, as flawed as it was, should bring the sides to the negotiating table and reach a settlement they and their students must live with.