Trial reset gives parties time to talk school lines
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.