Trial re­set gives par­ties time to talk school lines

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

Su­per­in­ten­dents and at­tor­neys for two Pu­laski County school dis­tricts, black stu­dents and the state are con­tem­plat­ing changes in school dis­trict boundary lines, in­clud­ing the po­ten­tial for one Pu­laski County school sys­tem south of the Arkansas River.

The pos­si­bil­ity of school dis­trict boundary ne­go­ti­a­tions — re­vealed in a fed­eral court fil­ing this week — hinges on the Pu­laski County Spe­cial School Dis­trict’s abil­ity to show it has met its de­seg­re­ga­tion obli­ga­tions on fa­cil­i­ties, stu­dent

achieve­ment and stu­dent dis­ci­pline prac­tices sooner than orig­i­nally an­tic­i­pated and is en­ti­tled to be re­leased from fed­eral court mon­i­tor­ing.

Pair­ing uni­tary sta­tus for the Pu­laski County Spe­cial dis­trict to boundary-line ne­go­ti­a­tions has the ef­fect of al­most mesh­ing two fed­eral law­suits to­gether — the decades-old Pu­laski County school de­seg­re­ga­tion law­suit and the 2015 law­suit filed against the Lit­tle Rock dis­trict and state ed­u­ca­tion lead­ers by some black fam­i­lies known as the Doe plain­tiffs.

At­tor­neys rep­re­sent­ing the Lit­tle Rock School Dis­trict, the state Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion and the Doe plain­tiffs asked U.S. Dis­trict Judge D. Price Mar­shall Jr. this week to de­lay for at least 90 days a trial set to start Tues­day over al­le­ga­tions of racial in­equities in the Lit­tle Rock dis­trict.

The de­lay would en­able the Lit­tle Rock and Pu­laski County Spe­cial dis­tricts, the state Ed­u­ca­tion Depart­ment and black stu­dents known as the Doe plain­tiffs in one case and the Joshua in­ter­venors in the older case to dis­cuss boundary changes “which would likely have a sub­stan­tial im­pact on LRSD.”

Par­ties in the Doe case told the judge they “be­lieve that most, if not all of the re­main­ing is­sues in this case can be re­solved in the con­text of the broader dis­cus­sions con­cern­ing the fu­ture con­tours and gov­er­nance of the school dis­tricts in Pu­laski County.”

Mar­shall, the pre­sid­ing judge in both cases, granted the mo­tion for the con­tin­u­ance on Fri­day, set­ting a new trial date for Sept. 11, “which is the only date cer­tain that the Court has avail­able this fall,” he said.

“The par­ties, there­fore, must sprint in their dis­cus­sions,” Mar­shall said. “If those dis­cus­sions pro­duce re­sults, the par­ties should file no­tice im­me­di­ately and the Court will con­sider any pro­posed set­tle­ment at the sta­tus con­fer­ence sched­uled for Sept. 6.

“If the par­ties can­not reach agree­ment, then this dis­pute will be tried start­ing at 1:30 on Sept. 11,” he said

Two dis­placed Lit­tle Rock School Board mem­bers and the fam­i­lies of some black stu­dents filed the law­suit against state and school dis­trict lead­ers in 2015. Most of the fam­i­lies were ini­tially iden­ti­fied not by their real names but by the last name of Doe. The Doe plain­tiffs are rep­re­sented by a team of at­tor­neys headed by Rep. John Walker, D-Lit­tle Rock.

The law­suit chal­lenged the Jan­uary 2015 state takeover of the dis­trict and the re­moval of the lo­cally elected school board be­cause six of the dis­trict’s 48 schools were la­beled as be­ing in aca­demic dis­tress for chron­i­cally low test scores.

The judge fairly quickly dis­missed the state takeover claims, but he sched­uled a trial for this month on the plain­tiffs’ al­le­ga­tions of racial dis­par­i­ties in re­gard to the con­di­tion of Lit­tle Rock school build­ings and stu­dent ac­cess to rig­or­ous aca­demic pro­grams.

Lit­tle Rock Su­per­in­ten­dent Mike Poore said Fri­day that he was ex­cited about the pos­si­bil­ity of an out-of court set­tle­ment of the is­sues in the Doe case.

“I ap­pre­ci­ate Mr. Walker ex­tend­ing out to try to solve this prob­lem and have every­body work to­gether,” Poore said. “I’m very pos­i­tive about it and ap­pre­cia­tive that we have this in place and that Mr. Walker helped en­gi­neer it.

“We have a lot of work to do ahead of us on some­thing like this,” he said about ne­go­ti­a­tions.

The joint mo­tion for a trial de­lay was filed late Thurs­day. It was signed by Walker as well as by Chris Heller, who rep­re­sents Poore and the Lit­tle Rock dis­trict; by As­sis­tant At­tor­ney Gen­eral Pa­trick Hollingsworth, who rep­re­sents state Ed­u­ca­tion Com­mis­sioner Johnny Key; and by Allen Roberts who, along with Whit­ney Moore, rep­re­sents the Pu­laski County Spe­cial School Dis­trict.

The Pu­laski County Spe­cial dis­trict is not a party in the Doe case, but it is a party in the much older, fed­eral Pu­laski County school de­seg­re­ga­tion law­suit in which Walker rep­re­sents black stu­dents known as the Joshua in­ter­venors.

The Pu­laski County Spe­cial dis­trict is work­ing in the older case to sat­isfy the Joshua in­ter­venors and ul­ti­mately Mar­shall that the dis­trict has met its de­seg­re­ga­tion obli­ga­tions.

Those obli­ga­tions in­clude equal­iz­ing the con­di­tions of cam­puses that serve higher pro­por­tions of black stu­dents to the Maumelle High and Mid­dle and Chenal El­e­men­tary schools, which are newer and serve higher per­cent­ages of white stu­dents.

The dis­trict also has obli­ga­tions in re­gard to stu­dent achieve­ment and stu­dent dis­ci­pline prac­tices.

“This mo­tion is based in part on devel­op­ments that im­pact” both cases, the at­tor­neys wrote in re­quest­ing the de­lay of the Doe trial.

“PCSSD and the Joshua in­ter­venors are open to im­me­di­ate and in­ten­sive dis­cus­sion to re­solve all re­main­ing uni­tary sta­tus is­sues, with the goal of do­ing so within 60 days,” the at­tor­neys wrote.

“When PCSSD is de­clared uni­tary, LRSD, PCSSD, the Arkansas Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion, the Joshua in­ter­venors and the Doe plain­tiffs are open to dis­cus­sions con­cern­ing boundary changes among the Pu­laski County school dis­tricts, which would likely have a sub­stan­tial im­pact on LRSD,” the mo­tion also said.

Allen, the at­tor­ney for the Pu­laski County Spe­cial dis­trict, said Fri­day that he an­tic­i­pates that he, Su­per­in­ten­dent Jerry Guess, Walker and oth­ers will now “sit down forth­with and essen­tially de­vote full time to ne­go­ti­at­ing uni­tary sta­tus.”

“If we fail to do that within the 60 days, then no­body else is ob­li­gated to do any­thing,” Allen said.

A Jan­uary 2014 global set­tle­ment in the older Pu­laski County school de­seg­re­ga­tion law­suit pro­hibits changes in the Pu­laski County Spe­cial school dis­trict bound­aries un­til the dis­trict is de­clared fully uni­tary.

The only ex­cep­tion to that in the 2014 set­tle­ment agree­ment was a pro­vi­sion al­low­ing the Jack­sonville com­mu­nity to de­tach from the Pu­laski County Spe­cial dis­trict to form its own dis­trict. The new 4,000-stu­dent Jack­sonville/ North Pu­laski dis­trict has just com­pleted is first year of op­er­at­ing in­de­pen­dently of Pu­laski County Spe­cial.

Once the Pu­laski County Spe­cial dis­trict is uni­tary, then the school dis­trict boundary lines are no longer un­touch­able, Roberts said Fri­day.

The state Board of Ed­u­ca­tion has the au­thor­ity to set school dis­tricts boundary lines. In 2015, a Board of Ed­u­ca­tion com­mit­tee con­ducted a study of boundary lines in Pu­laski County and sur­round­ing ar­eas and rec­om­mended, in gen­eral, that there be one Pu­laski County dis­trict south of the river and as many as four dis­tricts — North Lit­tle Rock, Jack­sonville, Sher­wood and Maumelle — north of the river.

Cur­rently, the Pu­laski County Spe­cial dis­trict is on both sides of the river, al­most sur­round­ing the Lit­tle Rock dis­trict on the south side and en­com­pass­ing the cities of Maumelle and Sher­wood on the north side.

Roberts said the Pu­laski County Spe­cial dis­trict doesn’t par­tic­u­larly want to see its boundary lines changed but feels it “can’t be stopped.” He said it is “pretty ob­vi­ous” that the dis­trict boundary lines will be changed once the dis­trict is uni­tary.

Re­gard­less, the dis­trict isn’t “go­ing to be slowed down” in its ef­forts to at­tain uni­tary sta­tus “by fear of be­ing dis­mem­bered,” Roberts said. “Be­ing uni­tary is more im­por­tant to Dr. Guess than hav­ing a big old dis­trict.”

Key, the com­mis­sioner, dis­trib­uted copies of the mo­tion for a de­lay of the Doe trial to the state Board of Ed­u­ca­tion on Fri­day.

“I wouldn’t read too much into it other than I think the par­ties are open to dis­cus­sion and con­ver­sa­tion about pos­si­bil­i­ties of bring­ing these cases to some type of end,” Key told the board. “Be­yond that, I don’t know what that looks like. I don’t know what will be talked about.”

He said in an in­ter­view that at­tor­neys who had been pre­par­ing for trial in re­cent days asked him Thurs­day whether he would be open to the re­quest for de­lay.

“I said ‘ sure,’” Key said, adding that there were no sug­gested terms of a set­tle­ment pro­posed to him.

The is­sue of school dis­trict boundary lines is raised pe­ri­od­i­cally in Pu­laski County.

In 1982, the pre­dom­i­nantly black Lit­tle Rock dis­trict sued the state, and the then-pre­dom­i­nantly white Pu­laski County Spe­cial and North Lit­tle Rock dis­tricts for school dis­trict con­sol­i­da­tion as a rem­edy to those racial im­bal­ances.

The 8th U.S. Cir­cuit Court of Ap­peals in St. Louis con­cluded that con­sol­i­da­tion of all three dis­tricts was too ex­treme a rem­edy, but it did or­der that much of south­west Lit­tle Rock, which was then a part of the Pu­laski County Spe­cial dis­trict, be an­nexed to the Lit­tle Rock dis­trict.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.