Friday, September 16, 2016

TOP STORY >> Judge firm on deseg lawsuit

Leader staff writer

The remaining parties to the Plan 2000 school desegregation lawsuit need to agree that all are unitary in staffing or prepare for an evidentiary hearing or trial by late fall 2017, U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. told them Thursday at the quarterly desegregation status report.

“This is a lawsuit,” the judge said. “There needs to be an end or a moment of clarity,” in the suit that has languished in federal court for nearly 17 years.

“Let’s reach an agreement or let’s have our trial,” the judge said.

Marshall told them that if all parties, which includes John Walker and the Joshua Intervenors, can’t agree the remaining districts are unitary or desegregated in staffing, they need to go to mediation or declare an impasse, which would result in the evidentiary hearing or the trial.

Little Rock and North Little Rock school districts have been declared unitary—that’s desegregated in all categories, leaving the Pulaski County Special School District, and by way of detachment, the brand new Jacksonville-North Pulaski School District to meet all unitary standards. The new school inherited all the unitary and non-unitary declarations when it detached from PCSSD.

In addition to staffing and facilities, the two districts are not unitary in achievement, monitoring and student discipline.

“We need to get our hands around staffing,” Marshall said, “before we lose momentum and lose progress.”

Walker challenged JNPSD over racial balance in staffing and PCSSD Superintendent Jerry Guess over progress on facilities.

JNPSD Attorney Scott Richardson noted that the district had hired approximately 500 certified and classified employees, 27 percent of them minorities. He reported that 16.6 percent of administrators in the new district were black. The new district is about 50 percent minority.

He challenged Richardson, saying that the district had hired white staff to administer to black staff.

Richardson noted that there were three central office administrators in positions of authority, including assistant superintendent Jeremy Owoh, second in command, who was the third hire, and had been involved in many key areas such as the hiring of principals and curriculum issues. In addition to Owoh, the director of special education and curriculum are also black, Richardson said.

“Plan 2000 requires fair process, not numbers,” Richardson said. Among other attempts to hire black staff—teachers and administrators among them—JNPSD recruited at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, a historically black university.

Walker challenged Guess over whether or not PCSSD had kept Joshua informed at each turn regarding progress in building new facilities and rehabilitating older ones.

He asked Guess why, if a new Mills High School was the top priority, dirt work for a new Robinson High School was further along than dirt work at Mills.

Guess said contractors had encountered problems at the Mills site, but that both new high schools were scheduled to open in fall 2018.

Walker asked why the new Mills and Robinson high schools are budgeted for about $40 million each, while the new Jacksonville High School is expected to cost about $60 million.

Walker asked Richardson why JNPSD was building a new high school instead of a new middle school, and why the uncertainty continued about one new elementary school to replace both Arnold Drive and Tolleson elementary schools.

Richardson explained that the new school is high on a list for Defense Department construction funding—it will be built outside the wire on Little Rock Air Force Base—but that it’s about number 35 on a list that currently will contribute to 34 projects.

Richardson said the district was committed to building the new elementary school to open in August 2018, and the new high school to open 2019.

The state Board of Education will let the district know May 1 how much state partnership money the district will get for those projects.

The judge wanted to know what’s next on Jacksonville’s facility plans. It’s likely that the district will build one new elementary school to replace Pinewood and Dupree.

The next status hearing is set for Dec. 7.