Wednesday, November 20, 2013

TOP STORY >> Judge could decide district split Friday

Leader senior staff writer

Jacksonville-area residents could know Friday morning whether or not they can start forming their own school district after decades of hard work and frustration.

U.S. District Judge G. Price Marshall said Tuesday afternoon that he would decide Friday morning whether or not to accept the settlement of the desegregation agreement that for 30 years has yoked Pulaski County Special School District to the Little Rock and North Little Rock districts with the state Department of Education, the Joshua Intervenors and the Knight Intervenors.

Joshua represents PCSSD’s black students; Knight, its employee unions.

The state Legislative Council last approved the agreement, clearing the way for McDaniel to present it to the judge.

Interim superintendent Jerry Guess and attorneys Sam Jones and Allen Roberts represented PCSSD in court and in the negotiations.


One provision of that settlement agreement allows a stand-alone Jacksonville/north Pulaski County-area district, and Attorney Gen. Dustin McDaniel said that could begin when and if Marshall approves the agreement.

McDaniel called Tuesday “a historic day,” and spread the credit around to all participants, but particularly to his assistant attorney general, Scott Richardson, who has been in the trenches for years on desegregation matters, particularly the new settlement.

“I’m stoked,” said Jacksonville resident Daniel Gray, president of the Jacksonville Education Corps, which has led the effort to form an independent school district. “We just got fast tracked, but there are still a lot of unknowns,” Gray said. “The next couple of days will tell a lot.”

“We look forward for this process to unfold in the coming months. Now the hard work starts,” said Gray.

With the addition Monday evening of Joshua Intervenors, represented by John Walker, and the Little Rock School Board, all six parties have now signed on to the plan to phase out state desegregation funding, majority-to-minority transfers and magnet schools.

In a hearing Tuesday, with all parties represented, Marshall asked for a motion to accept the settlement agreement and set Friday morning to argue, discuss and rule on that motion.

While the litigants seem optimistic, Marshall reserved Friday afternoon for pretrial motions, in case he couldn’t accept the settlement and needed to proceed to the scheduled Dec. 9 hearing.

Marshall has set aside two weeks to hear the case, which would be primarily about cutting offstate desegregation aid to the four districts.


Since 1989, the state has paid $1.2 billion in desegregation funds, in addition to the minimum foundation aid it gives to all state schools on a per-student basis.

The court has declared the Little Rock and North Little Rock districts unitary (desegregated) and PCSSD has nine areas in which it has not yet been ruled unitary, but some officials say it may be unitary in most of those.

That call awaits further argument before Marshall.

One important area in which PCSSD is not unitary is adequate academic facilities, and both the state and PCSSD agree that a separate Jacksonville/north Pulaski district would qualify for much more state aid in building those facilities, make it easier for PCSSD to address that issue.


Gray said residents within the already established district borders would be given a chance to vote on a stand-alone district.

The state would have to appoint members of a temporary school board, boundaries must be set for school board representation zones and then school board members elected.

A superintendent would have to be hired, as well as other administrators, teachers and classified employees.


“I feel no city has the potential Jacksonville has. This has been an answer to our prayers for many years,” said Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher.

“When you’ve looked at all the new schools built in central Arkansas in the last five years, I’ve asked why we’ve been punished and ignored, but I’ve come to realize that as Scripture says in Ecclesiastes that all things have a time and season, and I think it is our time.”

State Rep. Jim Nickels (D-Sherwood) represents constituents in both Jacksonville and Sherwood, and he has asked the attorney general’s office how Jacksonville can be allowed to detach, but the agreement doesn’t allow the formation of any other districts — such as Maumelle and Sherwood — “until PCSSD is declared fully unitary and is released from federal court supervision.”