Friday, June 24, 2011

EDITORIAL >>Troubles not over

The sense of relief was almost tangible when the state announced this week that it was taking over the Pulaski County Special School District, dismissing the school board and firing the superintendent. Charles Hopson, the relatively new superintendent, was making some strides in getting the schools out of the fiscal morass and educational confusion that had marked the school district for much of a decade, but the legacy was evident and inescapable. The state’s action seemed only late. If it had acted two years ago, the children and patrons of the schools might have been spared the harm.

Events conspired to make it all seem divinely provident. The state Education Department hired solid old Bobby Lester to be the interim superintendent and get the new school term under way with a minimum of waste and rancor. He will do that. Almost simultaneously, the 8th U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals stayed a federal district court order that would have robbed the schools of important funding and refused to speed the timetable for an appeal. That is likely to continue the state desegregation funding for at least the school year.

But our troubles are not over. The state will not work miracles, and it may not come even as close as Charles Hopson did in his short span at the helm. Even the little matter of Hopson’s contract may not be settled, though the state school commissioner said the state did not have to abide by contracts negotiated by the old school board and administration. The state maintains that it has sovereign immunity and cannot be sued for breach of contract, either for the superintendent’s salary or for abrogation of other contracts, such as the collective-bargaining agreements with school workers. This may be unsettled law. The state, after all, is not the father of the contracts and is acting only as a fiduciary for the district government, which did negotiate them. The state may not be able to save the money that was protected by the contracts.

The appellate court is not apt to disrupt funding in the middle of a school year, even if it finds that District Judge Brian Miller was right in canceling virtually the entire desegregation-funding agreement between the state and the three Pulaski County school districts. If it does so rule, the judgment is likely to be prospective, at the end of the 2011-12 school and fiscal year.

Judge Miller, we believe, was manifestly wrong in rendering a decision on issues that had not even been studied, briefed and argued in his court. Unless it departs from precedents, the appeals court will return the case to him next year with instructions to follow the rules of procedure.

But the school districts are on notice, as they have been all along, that they must plan and negotiate a way out of the 25-year-old case and the schools’ dependency on $70 million of state assistance. How can the Pulaski district do that when it is run by the state, which is on the other side in that long dispute? The state negotiate with itself? Save your hallelujahs.