Hear­ing set over bias in Lit­tle Rock district

Judge dis­misses two parts of in­equity claim

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - CYN­THIA HOW­ELL

U.S. District Judge D. Price Mar­shall Jr. said Fri­day that al­le­ga­tions of in­ten­tional racial dis­crim­i­na­tion in re­gard to the Lit­tle Rock School District’s school build­ings and pro­grams will be the fo­cus of a hear­ing to be­gin July 18 in his court.

That will in­clude the at­ten­dance-zone lines for Lit­tle Rock Cen­tral High, the judge said.

Al­le­ga­tions of in­equitable Lit­tle Rock district school build­ings and other district-pro­vided re­sources, in­clud­ing school pro­grams, are among the is­sues that were raised in a 2015 law­suit against state ed­u­ca­tion and school district lead­ers by two for­mer School Board mem­bers and the fam­i­lies of some black stu­dents.

The suit also chal­lenged the 2015 state takeover of the district be­cause six of its 48 schools were state-la­beled as aca­dem­i­cally dis­tressed for chron­i­cally low test scores. The judge dis­missed the state-takeover chal­lenge on Sept. 28, 2016.

Most of the plain­tiff stu­dents and their fam­i­lies, rep­re­sented by a le­gal team headed by Rep. John Walker, D-Lit­tle Rock, were ini­tially iden­ti­fied by the last name of Doe and not their real names.

The Arkansas at­tor­ney gen­eral’s of­fice and the Fri­day, El­dredge & Clark law firm are rep­re­sent­ing the de­fen­dants, Johnny Key, who is the state ed­u­ca­tion com­mis­sioner and acts as the Lit­tle Rock district’s school board, and Lit­tle Rock Su­per­in­ten­dent Mike Poore.

In his six-page or­der, Mar­shall granted the state and district’s mo­tions to dis­miss — for lack of ev­i­dence — al­le­ga­tions of racially dis­crim­i­na­tory teacher as­sign­ments

in the district and racially dis­crim­i­na­tory stu­dent dis­ci­plinary prac­tices.

“The core of Plain­tiffs’ re­main­ing claim is about fa­cil­i­ties and other re­sources, such as school pro­grams,” Mar­shall wrote in Fri­day’s or­der.

“Has LRSD in­ten­tion­ally dis­crim­i­nated based on race through district pol­icy, cus­tom, or prac­tice in pro­vid­ing them?” he con­tin­ued.

“And there’s the em­bed­ded is­sue about the at­ten­dance zone for Cen­tral High School,” he said. “Though Poore and Key make strong ar­gu­ments about trace­abil­ity and on the mer­its, the Court con­cludes that it can make a bet­ter judg­ment on the fa­cil­i­ties/re­sources claim af­ter see­ing and hear­ing the wit­nesses, plus con­sid­er­ing all the doc­u­ments with the con­text that only live tes­ti­mony, as well as oral ar­gu­ment, will pro­vide.”

Judd Deere, a spokesman for Arkansas At­tor­ney Gen­eral Les­lie Rut­ledge, said the state’s chief le­gal of­fi­cer wel­comed Mar­shall’s de­ci­sion to re­move some of the is­sues to be tried.

“The at­tor­ney gen­eral is pleased that Judge Mar­shall rec­og­nized that the Lit­tle Rock School District is not dis­crim­i­na­tory when it comes to ad­min­is­ter­ing stu­dent dis­ci­pline or teacher as­sign­ments,” Deere said in an email. “Even though the at­tor­ney gen­eral’s role is lim­ited to the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the com­mis­sioner of ed­u­ca­tion, she will re­view to­day’s or­der and the judge’s de­ci­sion to take two other claims to trial.”

Poore said he feels the district has a strong de­fense go­ing into trial.

“We are try­ing to be eq­ui­table in our de­liv­ery to kids,” Poore said. “We were work­ing in ev­ery avail­able way to try to make a dif­fer­ence for kids all across the district. We have re­ally tar­geted kids — and have got­ten great help from the state on this — in the poor-per­form­ing schools with ex­tra sup­port.

“This district does a good job and we are try­ing to get bet­ter ev­ery day,” Poore added. “I am anx­ious to go to court now and present the facts.”

Walker and Chris Heller, an at­tor­ney for the school district, did not re­spond Fri­day af­ter­noon to emailed re­quests for com­ments on the or­der.

The judge’s or­der and the court hear­ing come at a time when the state-con­trolled Lit­tle Rock district is seek­ing to raise money for con­struc­tion of a high school to re­place McClel­lan and J.A. Fair high schools and make im­prove­ments to roofs, win­dows and heat­ing/ air con­di­tion­ing sys­tems at other cam­puses.

Voters re­jected a pro­posal to ex­tend 12.4 prop­erty-tax mills by 14 years to 2047 in a May 9 spe­cial elec­tion. That plan would have gen­er­ated $202 mil­lion — $160 mil­lion in new money for con­struc­tion and the re­main­der to pay off ex­ist­ing bond debt at a lower in­ter­est rate.

The district now is ap­ply­ing to the state Board of Ed­u­ca­tion for ap­proval to is­sue sec­ond-lien bonds to raise $92,055,000 to help with the new high school and the up­dates at other cam­puses. Sec­ond-lien bonds do not re­quire voter ap­proval.

Cit­i­zens Against Tax­a­tion With­out Rep­re­sen­ta­tion, a grass-roots or­ga­ni­za­tion, has op­posed both bond pro­pos­als, ob­ject­ing to rais­ing the district’s an­nual debt obli­ga­tion when there are no lo­cally elected school board mem­bers to hold ac­count­able for how money is spent.

For­mer School Board mem­bers Jim Ross and Joy Springer are among the mem­bers of the group but also plain­tiffs in the law­suit that al­leges racial dis­crim­i­na­tion in the dis­parate con­di­tion of the district’s schools.

The plain­tiffs in the Doe case have ar­gued that the district pro­vides greater ac­cess to high-qual­ity ed­u­ca­tional re­sources and top-end fa­cil­i­ties to stu­dent groups who are dis­pro­por­tion­ately white. That is done to re­cruit and re­tain white stu­dents in the district to the detri­ment of the plain­tiffs who are black, at­tor­neys for the plain­tiffs have said.

They cited Pin­na­cle View Mid­dle School, For­est Heights Stem Academy and Cen­tral High as ex­am­ples of schools that have high per­cent­ages of white stu­dents and have had build­ing needs made a district pri­or­ity over schools such as McClel­lan High and Hen­der­son Mid­dle school that have nearly all black en­roll­ments.

Over­all, the Lit­tle Rock district’s en­roll­ment is about 64 per­cent black, 18 per­cent white, 14 per­cent His­panic, 2 per­cent Asian and 2 per­cent of other races or eth­nic­i­ties.

In­cluded in the al­le­ga­tions of district ef­forts to “priv­i­lege” white stu­dents is the “ger­ry­man­der­ing” of school at­ten­dance zones, the Doe plain­tiffs con­tend.

“Cen­tral’s at­ten­dance zone con­tain­ing a non-con­tigu­ous area … ef­fec­tively en­hances the white stu­dent pop­u­la­tion of Cen­tral as op­posed to the less-white Hall High, and … place­ment of an ex­cep­tion­ally high num­ber of por­ta­ble class­rooms at Cen­tral [fa­cil­i­tates] the con­cen­tra­tion of white high school stu­dents at that lo­ca­tion,” a le­gal brief sub­mit­ted by the Doe plain­tiffs to the judge on Fri­day ar­gued.

In Fri­day’s trial brief, the Doe at­tor­neys asked Mar­shall to or­der the district to re­draw the Cen­tral High at­ten­dance zone so it is con­tigu­ous and with­out a satel­lite zone, and to re­serve as many as 600 of the 1,200 seats at Pin­na­cle View Mid­dle School for stu­dents from the Cloverdale and Hen­der­son mid­dle school at­ten­dance zones.

The plain­tiffs also are ask­ing for a more eq­ui­table dis­tri­bu­tion of Ad­vanced Place­ment cour­ses and gifted ed­u­ca­tion pro­grams among the schools, an ed­u­ca­tion pro­gram for par­ents on ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties within the district for their chil­dren and for an in­de­pen­dent au­di­tor of district fi­nances.

They also want reg­u­lar ac­cess to the district’s fi­nan­cial of­fi­cers for an­swers to ques­tions about district op­er­a­tions.

Fur­ther, the plain­tiffs ask for the hir­ing of a district om­buds­man to as­sess the achieve­ment of the goals of the law­suit in re­gard to aca­demics, fa­cil­i­ties and stu­dent dis­ci­pline.

Mar­shall, in his or­der Fri­day, re­sponded to a re­quest from the Doe at­tor­neys for an ex­pan­sion of the four days sched­uled for the hear­ing that is to start at 9:30 a.m. July 18.

The plain­tiffs had asked for 15 days to be set aside for the case. Mar­shall said the plain­tiffs should be able to com­plete their case by the close of busi­ness on July 21, a Fri­day. The de­fense likely would go into the fol­low­ing week, the judge said.

On the al­le­ga­tion of racially dis­parate stu­dent dis­ci­pline in the district, Mar­shall said in his or­der that Poore and Key are en­ti­tled to sum­mary judg­ment, dis­miss­ing the claims.

“Tak­ing the record in the light most fa­vor­able to the stu­dents and par­ents, there’s in­suf­fi­cient ev­i­dence to sup­port a judg­ment that LRSD has a racially mo­ti­vated pol­icy, cus­tom, or prac­tice of dis­ci­plin­ing black stu­dents more harshly or dif­fer­ently than white stu­dents,” the judge said. “The record shows iso­lated in­stances in­volv­ing a few teach­ers and per­haps prin­ci­pals, gen­er­al­ized feel­ings of dis­parate treat­ment, and some bot­tom-line num­bers from across the district. All this is in­suf­fi­cient as a mat­ter of law.”

In re­gard to teacher as­sign­ment is­sues, the judge said the “plain­tiffs sim­ply haven’t of­fered suf­fi­cient ev­i­dence to sup­port a judg­ment that LRSD as­signs teach­ers based on a racially dis­crim­i­na­tory cus­tom, pol­icy or prac­tice.” He said that re­marks made more than 10 years ago and six su­per­in­ten­dents ago don’t suf­fice.

Be­sides Walker, at­tor­neys for the Doe plain­tiffs are Omavi Shukur, Shawn Childs, Robert Press­man and Austin Porter. Gale Ste­wart is listed as be­ing “of coun­sel.”

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