Friday, April 04, 2014

TOP STORY >> PCSSD declared unitary on scholarships

Leader staff writer

U.S. District Judge Price Marshall at a hearing on Friday declared the Pulaski County Special School District unitary, or desegregated, in the area of scholarships.

The judge then agreed to appoint a magistrate who would provide clarity about access to special-education records to help the district become unitary in that area at the request of PCSSD attorney Allen Roberts and Joshua Intervenors attorney John Walker.

The fates of the Magnet Review Committee and the Office of Desegregation Monitoring were also discussed during the hearing at the federal courthouse in Little Rock.

The judge suggested dissolving the ODM and, instead, having the chairwoman work as a court-appointed expert on an hourly, contractual basis. Marshall asked the parties to submit a response to his proposal by April 15.

PCSSD’s proposal on which unitary status in scholarships was hinged on increases to the amount of scholarship money the district provides to black students five-fold.

Roberts told The Leader on Tuesday that the district had been giving $1,000 scholarships to a maximum of 10 students annually. PCSSD’s proposal was to increase that to $2,500 scholarships to a maximum of 20 students annually through the 2017-18 school year.

Walker said in court, “I think that the district understands that, with the past administration of scholarships, Plan 2000 was not being met…They on their own moved to address that.”

The district is still not unitary in the areas of special education, discipline, student achievement and facilities, the last of which will likely be expensive and take years to achieve.

In January, Marshall accepted a desegregation settlement allowing for establishment of a Jacksonville/north Pulaski County school district, allows the state to stop paying hundreds of millions of dollars in desegregation funding by 2017-18 and sets a course for making PCSSD unitary in all aspects over time.

PCSSD, the Joshua Intervenors, the Knight Intervenors and the Little Rock and North Little Rock school districts agreed to the settlement.

Concerning the magistrate request, Roberts said the Joshua Intervenors, which rep resents the interests of black students, has monitors visiting the schools and “There’s been some confusion about the monitors’ access to student records and information that has otherwise been restricted.”

Although both sides agreed that PCSSD is unitary in the scholarships area, district officials say PCSSD is unitary on special education, but the Joshua Intervenors disagree.

In court, Walker said, “I believe special education is particularly troubling…we are not in agreement that PCSSD is far enough along that way.”

He told the judge, “We don’t expect it can be resolved with the stroke of a pen.”

But, Walker noted, he doesn’t want special education to “spill over” into other, more difficult areas like student achievement and discipline. He said, despite the district’s good efforts, numbers in those areas still show disparity between black and white students.

Roberts said later at the hearing, “It is noteworthy, and it has not been mentioned, that we are making progress on student achievement.”

He added that Superintendent Jerry Guess deserves the credit for attaining unitary status on scholarships.

Marshall asked if the magistrate could assist in other areas. Walker said the magistrate would be useful to have at their disposal.

The judge said the magistrate could be on call until PCSSD is declared desegregated and released from federal court supervision. Marshall added that he would refer a magistrate “sooner rather than later.”

The judge also suggested that the court meet periodically and regularly for status updates beginning in August, perhaps once every four months or once every six months.

The state’s attorney, Scott Richardson, agreed. He said, “These court hearings is what moves this thing along.”

Marshall also noted at the end of the hearing that the parties needed to discuss the Office of Desegregation Monitoring established by the court of appeals.

Walker said, “I think the ODM performs a constructive role in the process. It is not obstructive.”

Roberts said PCSSD, which pays between $30,000 and $35,000 of the office’s budget, doesn’t object to keeping it going until the district is declared desegregated. “If it will us get unitary, if it will give the impression, that’s peanuts,” the lawyer said.

But Marshall said the state, which provides around $200,000 of the office’s budget, wouldn’t be obligated to pay that after June 30 because of the settlement.

And he wasn’t sure whether PCSSD would be obligated to pay for the office after that date.

Richardson, the state’s attorney, said, “We’ll provide whatever help we can that is necessary,” but added that he doesn’t control the entity’s checkbook.

Richardson also called the ODM “an arm of the court.”

Marshall said he didn’t know if he could make the state pay its portion of the ODM’s budget. He noted that he could possibly order PCSSD to pay the entire budget, but didn’t want to do that because it would take hundreds of thousands of dollars from schools.

The judge proposed that the ODM be modified. He said the chairwoman, working from home on an hourly, contractual basis, could provide reports to him as a court-appointed expert. Marshall asked the parties to provide a written response to that proposal by April 15.

Walker also requested and received clarification on what will be done with the Magnet Review Committee now that transfers of PCSSD students to magnet schools outside the district is being phased out.

Walker argued that removing the committee would take away something the students expect to be there.

Joy Springer, who represents the Joshua Intervenors on the committee, testified that it meets once a month, oversees the budget at activities at the magnet schools, listens to reports on how effective programs are and answers questions for parents and students.

Marshall said it wasn’t the court’s place to continue the committee after June 30.