Friday, July 24, 2015

EDITORIAL >> New district fears lawsuits

Keep your friends close, but your adversaries closer—going forward, that needs to be the motto of the Jacksonville-North Pulaski School Board and administrators, or its detachment from the Pulaski County Special School District could slip into another expensive, long-running legal quagmire.

The actual quote “keep your friends close, but your enemies closer,” often and inaccurately attributed to Sun Tzu in “The Art of War,” or occasionally to Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” is in fact the work of Mario Puzo and Michael Corleone in “The Godfather Part II.”

But John Walker is not an enemy. He is a frequent and litigious adversary as lawyer and champion for the Joshua Intervenors, representing black students within Pulaski County in a decades-old desegregation suit.

U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall essentially warned JNP on Monday to reach out to Walker and to keep him in the loop regarding desegregation-related matters such as the hiring mechanism, school facilities and discipline.

Those are areas in which PCSSD, and by extension, JNP, must satisfy Marshall that the districts are unitary in order to eventually escape court desegregation supervision.

Some of the progress that PCSSD has made toward achieving unitary status in the last few years, and the desegregation agreement settlement that permitted creation of the Jacksonville-North Pulaski School District may well be attributable to the cordial working relationship between Walker and PCSSD attorney Allen Roberts.

No such collegiality exists between Walker and the JNP attorneys Scott Richardson and Patrick Wilson. Walker has suggested that Richardson—until late last year the state’s lead attorney in the desegregation case—had and has a conflict of interest.

Richardson has challenged Walker to take it up with the state Supreme Court’s Committee on Professional Conduct to cease the allegations.

Walker asked Marshall to stop the Sept. 15 election of JNP school board members because he said the five defined-zone and two at-large zone board districts adopted by the existing board restricted the chance of sufficient minority representation, diluted the minority vote and thus violated the Voting Rights Act.

Marshall declined to stop the election and suggested Walker could file a Voting Rights Act suit separately.

None of the alternatives Metroplan provided the JNP for board election zones would have provided more than one zone with a black majority.

Currently, on the appointed board, five of seven members are black and after the election there will be three or four black members on the seven-member board, although the school district is two-thirds white.

Without extreme gerrymandering, which could be illegal, it may be impossible to draw boundaries to create more than two predominately black zones out of seven, although Walker says he wants three minority-majority zones.

Walker says the reason he supported—or at least didn’t oppose—the new Jacksonville school district was that it could unlock millions of dollars in state matching aid unavailable to PCSSD for building and repairing schools, providing better facilities for all students and helping to make PCSSD unitary.

He says he sees little or no evidence of JNP moving toward facilities improvement. That’s because qualifying for the state facilities partnership participation is a slow process for which the district isn’t even eligible to apply until October for matching in 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 school years.

If Walker or someone he trusted attended the school board meetings, he would understand this.An invitation from the JNP board is in order.

It appears that the Defense Department will kick in about $18 million to $20 million to replace Arnold Drive Elementary School, possibly in 2016, and the air base is likely to provide 240 acres for the construction of a new high school.

Another bone of contention surfaced when the JNP board hired, Jeremy Owoh, who is black, as an assistant superintendent, but also hired interim Superintendent Bobby Lester’s son, Bobby E. Lester, who is white, as the other assistant superintendent over a black elementary school principal, Janice Walker.

Janice Walker apparently scored two points higher on the interview, but then superintendent-in-waiting Tony Wood had worked with the younger Lester at the state Education Department and wanted to hire him. PCSSD Superintendent Jerry Guess turned thumbs down on that hiring.

Until it stands alone on July 1, 2016, JNP continues to operate under Guess’ direction. Guess, saying that bypassing Jancie Walker might make a problem with gaining and keeping unitary status in hiring and staffing, refused to hire Lester.

For now, all such decisions must go through Guess, according to the judge, who asked all sides to submit hiring briefs to him by Aug. 3, with the next desegregation hearing set for Aug. 20.