LITTLE ROCK — A federal court hearing this week could be the last step toward ending two decades of state payments — more than $1 billion so far — to bolster desegregation programs in the three Pulaski County school districts.
U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall has set aside Monday and Tuesday for what is known as a “fairness hearing” to allow the public to register opinions to a proposed settlement that would end the state’s annual desegregation of nearly $70 million in 2018.
Marshall gave preliminary approval to the proposal in November after a hearing in which all parties in the long-running Pulaski County school desegregation case — the Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County Special school districts, the state attorney general’s office, and lawyers representing black students and teachers and other school employees — urged the judge to put a final stamp of approval on the agreement.
In December, when the court accepted written comments on the proposed agreement, nine groups or individuals expressed support or concerns.
Two North Little Rock residents, one with children in the North Little Rock district and the other with children in the Pulaski County Special district, filed objections and have received permission from Marshall to speak at this week’s hearing. The Sherwood Public Education Foundation, which opposes a section of the agreement that limits creation of independent school districts in the county, also was granted permission by the judge to address the court.
The Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce filed comments in favor of the agreement but did not ask to be heard in court.
After this week’s hearing, Marshall will consider the testimony and issue a final ruling on the settlement agreement.
State Rep. John Walker, D-Little Rock, attorney for black students and their parents known as the Joshua intervenors since the case began, said last week he “doesn’t expect anything unusual” during the hearing.
“The court is going to let people talk and then he’ll ask the parties to give whatever responses they wish, and then he’ll take it under advisement and issue an opinion in a short period of time,” Walker said.
Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, who brokered the proposed settlement, said he has seen nothing so far that would constitute a major hurdle.
“However, when you’re talking about the billion (dollars) we’ve already spent and the quarter-billion that we’re going to spend, I don’t intend to leave anything to chance,” McDaniel said recently. “We’re going to prepare for this as if we’re arguing a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, and if it just goes smoothly, simply and routinely, it’s always better to be over-prepared then under-prepared.”
The state has paid the Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County Special school districts $1.2 billion since 1989 to bolster desegregation programs in a case that had its origins in the 1957 Central High School integration crisis.
The proposed settlement that McDaniel negotiated would end state desegregation payments to the three districts after the 2017-18 school year. In 2018-19, the three districts would get another year of payments to be used exclusively for school buildings.
The agreement includes stipulations that attorneys for the three districts would receive $250,000 from the state, with any fees above that amount to be paid by the individual districts. It also asks the federal judge to approve $500,000 in fees for attorneys for the Joshua intervenors and $75,000 for other attorneys in the case.
While the settlement agreement would clear the way for creation of a new school district in Jacksonville, it would prohibit the establishment of any other new school districts in Pulaski County until the PCSSD is declared unitary — largely desegregated — and released from federal court supervision, as have the two other two districts in the case.
That provision, which is actually the last sentence of the proposed agreement, did not sit well with the city of Sherwood and education advocates there.
The Sherwood Education Foundation supports other provisions but objects to the last sentence. Beverly Williams, co-chairman of the foundation, said she and foundation co-chair Linda Remelle plan to voice their objections to the provision in federal court Monday.
Williams said the provision would prolong Sherwood’s attempt to create an independent school district.
“What it says is that no other territory can detach from (PCSSD) until (the county district) is totally unitary,” she said. “Is that another 30 years? Is that another 10 years?”
Walker and McDaniel questioned whether the Sherwood group has standing in the case.
“The only people who can really object are class members,” Walker said, adding that the Sherwood foundation did not intervene in the case.
McDaniel questioned the foundation’s standing to object to a matter that is “really designed to protect the class, not the parties.”
“Furthermore,” the attorney general said, “the part they are objecting to, all they are objecting to is they don’t want me as the state to take the position of what we will and will not object to in future actions. I don’t see that they have any standing to tell the state what we can and cannot object to in the future.”
Williams noted that in Marshall’s Jan. 3 court order setting the fairness hearing, the judge specifically said he would consider the foundation’s objection when evaluating all opposition to the proposed settlement.
“Regardless of what Mr. Walker or the attorney general’s opinion is, the order signed by Judge Marshall says we have a right t speak and he will consider our objection,” Williams said.
After Marshall gave tentative approval to the settlement agreement, Walker said he did not particularly like the section of the agreement that would let Jacksonville detach from the Pulaski County district and create its own district. He said he agreed to it because, if a new district is formed there, it would be “basically a desegregated area.”
He said he opposed any other cities being allowed to detach and form new school districts because creating new districts in other parts of the county could lead to resegregation of the Little Rock district.
In November, Walker said he and attorneys for the Pulaski County district were working on a separate agreement that would require the district to build facilities in the lower-income areas of the district and that the Little Rock district must work to desegregate its magnet schools.
In its filing on the proposed settlement, the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce said it did not like the provision that would allow only Jacksonville to move forward with creating an independent district but was willing to accept it if it means ending the case.
“We are in support of the proposed settlement agreement, as it brings an end to the litigation and represents a positive step forward for the students, school districts, our community and the state,” said chamber President and CEO Jay Chesshir.