Saturday, November 23, 2013

TOP STORY >> Ruling allows Jacksonville district

Leader senior staff writer

A stand-alone Jacksonville-area school district is likely within two years, and an end to state support of the expensive, extensive 31-year-old central Arkansas desegregation effort is set for the 2017-18 school year.

That’s because U.S. District Judge Price Marshall III on Friday granted preliminary approval to a six-party desegregation settlement agreement that would clear the way for detachment of a Jacksonville-area district from Pulaski County Special School District. It also specifies a sum and date certain for the end of state desegregation financial support, which has exceeded $1 billion.

Final touches on the agreement, which PCSSD, the North Little Rock and Little Rock school districts, the Joshua and Knight Intervenors and the state all signed off on, were completed Tuesday evening. The state Legislative Council on Monday approved the agreement for presentation to the court, provided that all parties, with the possible exception of the Joshua Intervenors, signed off. Eventually, all parties agreed.


The settlement agreement calls for the state to continue desegregation funding for rest of the 2013-14 school year. (See editorial, p. 6A.)

In 2014-15, 2015-16 and 2016-17, PCSSD would receive about $21 million annually in such funding, Little Rock would get about $37 million and North Little Rock would take $7.6 million. Then, for the 2017-18 school year, final payments of the same amounts would be earmarked for new construction, remodeling and repair of the neediest schools in those districts.


If Marshall’s preliminary approval stands the challenge of a January public fairness hearing, PCSSD will still lack unitary status in several areas and is not excused from achieving that status. Any responsibility of PCSSD would apply to a Jacksonville district as well. One of the trickiest unitary hurdles is good and adequate school buildings. A Jacksonville detachment would benefit both the new district and the rest of PCSSD in that regard. Because of the area’s wealth index, the state only pays half-of-one-percent of approved academic facilities. Because Jacksonville is relatively poor, the state would match about 50 percent of those costs.

Walker told Marshall he did not favor a stand-alone Jacksonville-area district, but that it is a racially-balanced area that would not impact the racial balance of the rest of PCSSD.


“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,” part of the agreement read.

It’s not that simple, says Daniel Gray, president of the Jacksonville/North Pulaski area Education Corps. It will require the vote and approval of area school patrons. A temporary school board would probably be appointed with an election to follow for new school board members. He said a new district is likely two years off — maybe more.


But while the agreement authorizes pursuit of a Jacksonville area district, “the state will oppose the creation of any other school districts from PCSSD’s territory until PCSSD is declared fully unitary and is released from federal court supervision.”

That’s the language to which some Sherwood and Maumelle residents who want their own districts object.

Walker said that while a Jacksonville district wouldn’t upset racial balance in PCSSD, that was not true of other areas interested in breaking off from PCSSD. Areas such as Maumelle, Sherwood and Chenal, which are predominantly white, would leave the remaining areas of PCSSD predominantly black — a clear violation of the intent of the 30-year-old desegregation agreement.

Walker seemed to suggest that the court did not need to hear objections at the fairness hearing from those other areas interested in their own districts.


“I’m not inclined to close the courthouse doors,” the judge told him.

Sherwood Mayor Virginia Hillman attended the Friday hearing.

State Rep. Jim Nickels, D-Sherwood, has written asking Attorney General Dustin McDaniel to explain how the agreement could exclude Sherwood and other cities from the opportunity to form stand-alone districts, while allowing Jacksonville to have one.


“This is a great day,” PCSSD Superintendent Jerry Guess said. “Another step taken in the process.”

Gray, the Jacksonville school district spokesman, said, “I’m still stoked. I appreciate what (John) Walker said—the creation of a Jacksonville/north Pulaski County district does not affect (racial balance) numbers.”

Education Corps lawyer Patrick Wilson said Walker recognized that state partnership money for academic facilities serves the black students he represents. The kids he represents will be attending school in better buildings if Jacksonville breaks off from PCSSD.

“A Jacksonville district is even closer,” Gray said.

Wilson said, “I’m even more optimistic.”

Sam Jones, who has represented PCSSD in desegregation matters since 1982, said of the agreement and the ruling, “No party got everything it wanted, but they all got something.”


Final approval of the agreement is pending until a Jan. 13-14 fairness hearing, at which the court will hear objections to be sure the settlement is “fair, reasonable and adequate,” he said. The judge said that those wishing to object and appear at the fairness hearing must inform the court by Dec. 23.

Had Marshall not tentatively approved the agreement, all sides would have battled it out in his court, where he had set aside two weeks beginning Dec. 9.

Marshall postponed the Dec. 9 hearing, which may be unnecessary, but reserved March 17-28 in case the settlement agreement fails to get final approval.


“This is not the end,” Marshall said. “But it’s the beginning of the end.”

He said that he had ruled in favor of the agreement because it was “in the range of reasonable,” agreed to by all parties, had legal precedent, didn’t seem skewed in favor of any one party, the proposed attorney fees seemed reasonable and it seemed to have no glaring defect or omission.

“Nothing here causes me concern,” the judge noted.

He praised the hard and able work undertaken by the litigants and their attorneys.

Marshall ordered the parties to make the terms of the tentative settlement known widely and in language a middle school student could understand.