Thursday, December 05, 2013

TOP STORY >> District looks to unitary status

Leader senior staff writer

Even as the parties to the 1989 desegregation agreement stand on the brink of a historic end to its terms and requirements, the Pulaski County Special School District and the Joshua Intervenors are in the process of crafting a new plan to ensure completion of unitary status throughout the district.

PCSSD, the North Little Rock and Little Rock school districts, the Joshua Intervenors, the Knight Intervenors and the state Education Department have agreed on a plan to wind down that agreement. U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. has approved that settlement, pending the results of a Jan. 13 fairness hearing in his court.

That settlement would allow Jacksonville-area residents to move forward with forming their own school district, would phase out inter-district majority-to-minority transfers and magnet schools, and would relieve the state of its obligation to pay the three districts a total of $67 million a year after the 2017-2018 school year.

If and when Jacksonville/north Pulaski County detaches from PCSSD, the unitary — that’s desegregation — requirements will apply to the new district as well.

“This is nothing ominous or of concern,” PCSSD interim Superintendent Jerry Guess said Thursday. “It does not affect the other thing (tentative desegregation agreement settlement). They are separate and apart.”

“We hope to get a magistrate to tell us how to proceed,” he said.

“Whether or not PCSSD is unitary is not an issue in the fairness hearing,” said Allen Roberts, an attorney representing the district.

“The district and Joshua are on a path likely to lead to unitary status in a reasonable amount of time,” Roberts added.

Both the Little Rock and North Little Rock districts already have been declared unitary, so if Marshall approves the desegregation settlement agreement, they will be free and clear.

PCSSD and the Joshua Interveners were to have begin sorting out the areas in which the district was and was not unitary with a series of hearing beginning in August 2013, but that and some subsequent hearings were postponed to accommodate medical problems of John Walker, who represents the interveners.

The next hearing was to have been earlier this week, but Walker and Roberts realized they needed more time, Roberts said Thursday.

Roberts said he believes that Marshall will appoint a magistrate to referee the unitary issues between PCSSD and the interveners.

There are nine areas in which PCSSD has not been declared unitary, and “We’ve got a stipulation that there are five areas ripe for settlement,” according to Whitney Moore, an Fuqua Campbell attorney who works with Roberts on school issues.

“The goal is to get three of them agreed to prior to referring six others to a magistrate,” she said Thursday.

The “ripe” areas include equity in one-race classrooms, staffing, special education, talented and gifted/AP programs, and monitoring.”

The four others include facilities, which could take a decade, scholarship, discipline and student achievement, Moore said.

In the mid-’90s, PCSSD was declared unitary in four areas, including elementary gifted and talented and counseling, she said.

Guess explained it like this: “There are two different issues—one is inter-district, the other is intra-district.”

The inter-district issue is the subject of tentative the desegregation agreement settlement likely to be settled by Marshall after the mid-January fairness hearing.

The intra-district issue involves PCSSD and the Joshua Interveners and focuses on whether or not the district is unitary in a host of areas.

“If we can’t come up with a solution, we’ll ask Marshall to appoint a magistrate,” Guess said.