Friday, March 18, 2016

TOP STORY >> Judge’s ruling helps new district

Leader senior staff writer

“Absent strong and well-reasoned objection” from the Joshua Intervenors within 10 days, U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. will make the Jacksonville-North Pulaski School District a party to the desegregation lawsuit, he said Wednesday in court.

That means that district and the Pulaski County Special School District from which it is splitting could be considered individually for unitary status in various areas of concern, such as monitoring, facilities and staffing. “It’s possible that one might get unitary before the other,” he said.

Until now, JNPSD has operated as what Marshall termed “a hybrid” district with PCSSD. But, as of July 1 — after two years — it will no longer be a subsidiary and will be fully independent like nearly every other school district.

JNP attorney Scott Richardson said his client had long wanted to be a party to the desegregation suit and welcomed that status, and PCSSD attorney Allen Roberts said that district has no objection.

That leaves only the Joshua Intervenors as possible objectors. Other parties to the suit — the state and Little Rock and North Little Rock school districts — have been excused from the case, those two school districts because the judge has ruled they have achieved unitary status.


In the quarterly status hearing, Joshua Intervenors lawyer John Walker challenged the new district’s hiring mechanism and its master facilities plan. Marshall told all parties that those issues would be revisited after the new district’s first year of operation.

Walker charged that “the people running JNPSD are all (Superintendent Tony) Wood’s friends” and predominantly white but did note half of the principals hired are black.

“Requirements of law must be obeyed,” Walker said.

Walker also said JNPSD’s hiring of certified and classified workers was proceeding too slowly for him to evaluate whether it complied with terms of the desegregation agreement Plan 2000.

Virtually all persons employed by PCSSD this year at schools that will be part of JNPSD have been notified that PCSSD will not rehire them next year — that they will have to apply for positions through JNPSD.


With nearly 4,000 students leaving the district and expected to attend schools in the new district, PCSSD needs about 300 fewer certified personnel, who have already been told they aren’t rehired. And, on Wednesday, 187 more PCSSD positions have been eliminated, which will have the net effect of laying off 100 contract workers and others who were not working on an annual contract.

Walker has consistently held that the new district is discriminating against blacks by not immediately replacing all elementary schools with new buildings.

The district’s current long-term facilities master plan calls for one new elementary school to replace two, Arnold Drive and Tolleson, west of state Hwy. 67/167.

The plan also calls for a new high school to be built at the site of the old Jacksonville Middle School on Main Street, and rehabilitating North Pulaski High School — currently in its final year as a high school — to serve as the new district’s middle school.

The other schools, many of which are located in minority neighborhoods, will receive some expedited renovations and a new multi-purpose building each.

Both the court’s desegregation monitor Marge Powell and Marshall have agreed the plan is not discriminatory, but Marshall has said he wants new buildings for those elementary schools as soon as possible.


Richardson, a JNPSD attorney, told the court that even with the newly passed millage — one of the highest in the state — the district could not afford to build all new schools now. He said the state would not participate in funding new construction for those schools because they aren’t in bad enough condition.

Because one site is on Little Rock Air Force Base, the Defense Department is expected to pay for a lot of the new elementary school.

Marshall warned JNPSD that, when the facilities issue is revisited in a year, he expects to see plans for replacing Dupree, Bayou Meto, Pinewood and Taylor elementary schools. But he “doesn’t contemplate the impossible,” he said.


Richardson told the court that there are two bases for determining if facilities are equal. The desegregation agreement requires “equality” between schools, while the Constitution requires “substantial equality,” he said.

He said equality, which would require construction of all new schools, would stretch out the time needed to comply, while “substantial equality,” which would allow remodeling plus some new construction to new-school standards, would be achieved much more quickly — a lower bar to achieve.

“Well let’s chin that bar,” Marshall said.

“I think the new district has made big strides but incomplete,” Marshall said. “Elementary schools are addressed only at the margins.”


But equitable school facilities now “does require the impossible,” he said.

Another difference is in what standard to use in determining whether or not staffing meets unitary standards.

Walker said JNPSD is using the labor-market standard. If only 8 percent of the labor market were black, by way of example, then only 8 percent of teaching, administrative and classified positions would need to be filled by black people. “Our position is that (racial) balance must be maintained,” he said.

He accused Wood and the board of exercising nepotism and favoritism in hiring.

Walker threatened to take his concerns to the Justice Department if he doesn’t get satisfaction, but seemed to agree that a year is needed to make determination of efforts to unitary status.

Walker and Richardson remain at odds on many issues.

Walker told the judge that, when he needs information from PCSSD, he goes to the appropriate department, asks for and receives the information, but that — with JNPSD — all roads seem to lead through Richardson.

“Mr. Richardson’s approach is different than the others. We are prevented from getting the information,” Walker said.


“I see grumpiness about things being done differently by the new district,” Marshall said, but no evidence that it’s being done improperly, he noted.

Marshall told Walker that JNPSD was not bound to communicate in the same manner that PCSSD had chosen and said he should direct his requests for information to Richardson.

Richardson said that, until a couple of weeks ago, there were only three central office administrators trying to comply with information requests at the same time they are hiring and trying to get ready for their first year running a standalone school district.

Marshall said both districts are going through changes this year — JNPSD is starting to educate students for the first time and PCSSD is escaping state control for the first time since 2011 and needing to elect and train a new school board.

He said the JNPSD administrators need to be focused on getting school started and to see how staffing shapes up between now and early fall.

He said discovery for the evidentiary hearing Walker seeks could be set for late fall, with the hearing on staffing the following summer.