Friday, December 30, 2011

TOP STORY >> PCSSD gets lifeline from appeals court

Leader staff writer

A ruling last week by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals means the state will continue to pay more than $70 million to the three Pulaski County school districts.

The Pulaski County Special School District’s share works out to $17 to $20 million

The appellate judges agreed with U.S. District Judge Brian Miller’s thinking that it was futile to continue to pay the districts for continued failure to promote improved education and educational opportunities for African-American students. (See editorial, p. 6A.)

The appeals court said “the district court’s frustration is understandable, and its conclusion regarding the perverse incentives created by the state’s funding may have some merit.”

But the appeals court decision, written by Circuit Judge Raymond Gruender, said Miller’s ruling ordering payments to stop without proper hearings and documentation proving the districts’ failures was not legal. So the annual payments will continue to the districts until the state asks the court for hearings to stop it and those hearings produce enough evidence to show that the payments should end.

The districts greeted the continued desegregation payments as good news, but the news was not all good from the appeals court.

Although the judges ruled in favor of the districts on the money, they ruled against the Pulaski County Special School District in its efforts to become unitary, meaning release from federal monitoring of its desegregation efforts, calling the district a perennial “constitutional violator.”

The court agreed with Miller “affirming the partial denial of PCSSD’s petition for unitary status” because complying with its own desegregation plan “seems to be an afterthought.”

Both Miller and the appeals court denied PCSSD’s petition for unitary status in nine areas— areas that the district failed to show improvements or in some cases, showed no attempt at making positive changes.

The district didn’t show that it followed its Plan 2000 to make improvements for African-Americans in the areas of student assignment; advanced placement, gifted and talented, and honors programs; discipline; school facilities; scholarships; special education; staff; student achievement and monitoring.

Both courts said the district showed “lack of good faith, finding at the outset that it seems PCSSD has given very little thought, and even less effort, to complying with its desegregation plan.”

The area that probably demonstrates this more than any other is facilities.

PCSSD’s own desegregation plan called for the district to prepare a plan “so that existing school facilities are clean, safe, attractive and equal,” build two new schools in specific areas and not close schools in predominantly black areas.

A 1999 district study recommended building 10 new schools at a cost of $230 million. Voters rejected a $110 million millage increase for new schools, but the districts still built three schools, two required ones—Bates Elementary and Maumelle Middle School, and a third one, Chenal Elementary, an interdistrict school.

On the surface that looks good, but the courts found that the district spent $8,150 per students to build Bates, which is located in a mostly black area, and $22,000 per student for the Maumelle School and $25,000 per student for Chenal, both built in predominantly white areas.

Plus the new school that recently replaced Oak Grove High School, which cost about $60 million to build, is also in a predominantly white area and was built even though the district study said “Oak Grove High School could be made adequate with renovations.”

Meanwhile, according to the appeal court’s decision, “several schools in predominantly black areas that were identified as in need of replacement by the 1999 study continue to languish in relatively poor condition with broken commodes, falling ceiling tiles, holes in ceilings and exposed wiring.”

Some of those “poor” schools referred to in the decision are in Jacksonville.

In the category of students assignments, both the circuit court and appeals court agreed that “PCSSD’s dismissive approach to one-race reporting requirement has done nothing to demonstrate to the public and to the parents and students of the once disfavored race, its good faith commitment to the whole of the court’s decree.”

Under the advanced placement section, the courts said that PCSSD did not even try to implement its desegregation plan, giving the courts no basis to verify improvement had been made.

“More importantly,” the court noted, “PCSSD, an adjudged constitutional violator, has done nothing to assure the public of any permanent good faith commitment to promoting racial diversity in its advanced placement.”

So the district continues to be in violation in this area.

In the area of discipline, the court wrote, “PCSSD has not even attempted to implement its plan, we have no basis on which to decide if the vestiges of past discrimination have been eliminated.”

The good-faith issue was cited again when it came to providing more scholarship opportunities for African-Americans. The court said evidence showed the district did form a committee to work on scholarships, “but to date, no scholarships have been awarded. Merely establishing a committee is insufficient unless the committee made a genuine good faith effort.”

No evidence exists, according to the court’s decision.

In the area of special education, the district failed in its obligations to develop specific plans for individual schools that have an excess of African-Americans in its special-education program.

When it comes to staffing, the district’s own desegregation plan had four components. The judges said, “PCSSD failed to comply in good faith with any of the four requirements.”

When it came to student achievement, the district had promised under its Plan 2000 to follow specific suggestions of Dr. Stephen Ross, referred to as the Ross Plan, “to improve educational achievement by all students, with special attention to African-Americans.”

“The district failed to demonstrate any proof that it provide special attention to black students and failed to systemically design, select and implement effective intervention programs,” the court said.

Under the monitoring requirements it seemed the district decides what portions of its plan it would follow and what parts it wouldn’t. The judges said, “PCSSD cannot pick and choose and expect to achieve unitary status.”