Friday, November 15, 2013

TOP STORY >> Deal to end school lawsuit stalls

Leader staff writer

The wheels are threatening to come off a historic proposed desegregation settlement agreement that would ease the way for a separate Jacksonville/north Pulaski school district and ensure all three Pulaski County school districts continue getting state desegregation funding for three more years.

It would also ensure a fourth year’s funding, earmarked for building, remodeling and renovating school buildings.


The state Legislative Council on Friday approved proceeding with efforts to gain court approval for the proposed settlement.

One element of the settlement reads, “The state and the districts agree that the state may immediately authorize the creation of a Jacksonville/North Pulaski area school district consistent with state law.” But no other new districts can be allowed until PCSSD is declared unitary, it states.

Parties to the desegregation settlement are Pulaski County Special, Little Rock and North Little Rock school districts, the Joshua and Knight Intervenors and the state.

Two school boards and PCSSD Superintendent Jerry Guess, acting in-lieu of the disbanded PCSSD school board, approved the settlement agreement Thursday evening, as did the Knight Intervenors. They represent PCSSD teachers and staff.

While unanimously approving the settlement, the Little Rock District took no action on a second motion for the attorney general to proceed with or without approval of the Joshua Intervenors.


That vote, for now, has torpedoed McDaniel’s ability to present the settlement agreement to U.S. District Judge Price Marshall.

State Rep. John Walker (D-Little Rock), who has been the Joshua attorney throughout, has withheld his approval. He insisted Friday on new language stating that, other than Jacksonville, no new districts may be created from PCSSD until it is unitary and released from federal supervision.

Maumelle and Sherwood have expressed interest in detachment. State Rep. Jim Nickels (D-Sherwood) challenged that language Friday at the Legislative Council meeting.


McDaniel still has a strong hand because U.S. District Judge Brian Miller, the previous judge in the desegregation case, ruled that the state should stop making desegregation payments immediately. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis upheld that decision.

State desegregation funding over the decades has cost the state more than $1.2 billion, according to McDaniel. He said, when it was first started, officials estimated it could cost as much as $100,000.

The desegregation agreement trial, slated to begin Dec. 9, would be unnecessary if McDaniel presents Marshall with the settlement agreement and the judge approves it.

By way of the settlement, the state agreed to pay the Little Rock District about $149 million over the next four years, North Little Rock about $30 million and PCSSD about $81 million. After that, they would get no more state desegregation aid.


“This is a take-it-or-leave-it settlement,” McDaniel said. If he has to go to court and wins, the desegregation funding will end after this school year.

“This is an historic milestone to see the three school districts in Pulaski County and the state attorney at a point of agreement on how to terminate the financial support and end litigation and ongoing hostilities,” McDaniel said.

“We want a date certain for the end of the state’s financial obligation and a dollar amount and some accountability for the investment we’re making,” he said.

The agreement, if approved, would represent a change in the relationship between the districts and the state, McDaniel said. “We can stop being adversaries in court and start being partners in education,” he noted.


“Yesterday, I thought Joshua had agreed to sign the deal,” McDaniel said.

“That didn’t happen. I asked you to give us an extra hour. I thought we could come together, but Joshua refuses to sign on,” the clearly frustrated attorney general explained. “I don’t know why. I was asked for two additional things (by Walker) and I agreed to both. I don’t know why Walker won’t agree.”

He said it was the LRSD board’s failure to endorse proceeding without the Joshua intervenors that gave Walker leverage to ask for and receive more concessions.

McDaniel said that, when he asked what more Walker needed to sign off on the settlement agreement, he received no answer.

Patrick Wilson, attorney for Jacksonville-North Pulaski Education Corps, said, “We’re closer than ever to a Jacksonville/North Pulaski school district — the district we’ve sought for most of my life. We’re anxious for there to be a complete settlement that says our dream is going to be a reality.”


Daniel Gray, president of the Education Corps, said, “We’re excited there’s a settlement in place agreed to by all three districts and the state.We’re hoping Little Rock and Joshua sign on. It’s definitely positive movement, coming so close to a settlement. We’re hoping and praying by Tuesday midnight they will all be on board.

Allen Roberts, an attorney who represents PCSSD in desegregation matters, said, “We think the settlement reached today is a reasonable effort to end the desegregation case. It provides transition time (regarding the funding agreement). We’d love to get something we can count on.”

Guess said, “I’m still very optimistic. I think the Little Rock School Board will see the wisdom. I think it’s a good deal for all of us. I believe this is going to happen.”


Other elements of the settlement state that:

 The unitary status of PCSSD will be the subject of a separate agreement between the Joshua Intervenors and PCSSD.

 The state, LRSD and NLRSD will be dismissed from the litigation.

 Facilities payments the fourth year will be separate and won’t affect the state’s share in academic facilities support.

 A framework for phasing out M to M student transfer.

 A similar framework for phasing out Magnet schools.

 The state’s fiscal obligations to the 1989 desegregation agreement will cease.

 District Court jurisdiction of the state, LRSD, NLRSD and Knight is terminated.