After 31 years, end in sight to school desegregation case?

By Kelly P. Kissel
Associated Press

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — With competing offers on the table to settle a desegregation battle, it would seem that that all the parties need to do is hammer out a figure somewhere in the middle to wrap up a 31-year lawsuit over whether three central Arkansas school districts have a suitable level of racial balance.

It won’t be that easy. Since 1989, the state of Arkansas has provided an extra $1 billion in funding to the Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County Special school districts to help them with their desegregation efforts.

Arkansas wants to stop the payments but has offered $119 million in a final set of payments to help the districts get by. Little Rock’s district wants $297 million.

A federal judge has already indicated a willingness to end the payments altogether, but Little Rock says that, to maintain a proper racial mix among its 24,000 pupils, it will still need money. “The end of the payments is not a foregone conclusion,” said Chris Heller, a lawyer for the Little Rock School District.

Little Rock’s school system alleged in a 1981 lawsuit that it couldn’t maintain a racially balanced school system. To settle claims, Arkansas has helped fund magnet schools, transfers between districts and other programs to support desegregation.

Two years ago, U.S. District Judge Brian Miller directed that the most of the extra funding be stopped, saying it gave the districts no incentive to solve segregation problems. A federal appeals court reversed the decision because, to that date, the state had not asked to be released from the payments.

Now it has, and a two-week hearing is scheduled to start Dec. 9.

Ahead of that hearing, the Little Rock district last month offered to drop all legal proceedings if the state would give it $297 million — either all at once or over seven years — and free it from Education Board requirements that it provide pupils an adequate education and manage the district properly. Attorney
General Dustin McDaniel reently countered.

“... the State cannot agree to a settlement that includes any sort of ambiguous terms or ongoing non-monetary obligations which could give rise to future disputes over compliance or interpretation,” McDaniel write, seeking an absolute end to the litigation with his $119 million offer.

Heller has asked that his school board take up McDaniel’s response.

Entering a recent meeting, board members were considering whether to stick with the demand for $297 million, accept the final and smaller set of assistance payments from the state or take a chance in the federal court and risk losing the payments altogether.

In the court hearing, Arkansas will argue that the payments, now totaling about $70 million a year, should stop because the federal court system has declared that the Little Rock and North Little Rock districts are essentially desegregated and that Pulaski County’s is desegregated to a lesser degree.
If the payments stop, the state wants to use $35 million to eliminate nearly all of the sales tax on groceries.

A different federal judge will consider Arkansas’ request to end the payments: Miller stepped aside when the state Education Department took over his hometown district on grounds it was fiscally distressed.

Judge D. Price Marshall has the case now, and has refused to delay the hearing while Little Rock’s school system and a group of parents who intervened in the case ask an appeals court to review Marshall’s ruling that Pulaski County’s charter school system violates the 1989 desegregation agreement.

While the current lawsuit is more than 30 years old, the racial balance of public schools here has been an issue since the 1957 desegregation battle at Central High School, where federal troops sent in by President Dwight D. Eisenhower enforced a court order to let nine black children attend.