Leader Blues

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

TOP STORY >>Ruling could help new district

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader staff writer

If timing is, in fact, everything, then plotting the end to the expensive, well-intentioned-but-messy Pulaski County school desegregation agreement may indeed be an idea whose time has come and could lead to an independent Jacksonville school district.

Even as U.S. District Judge Bill Wilson released the Little Rock School District from that 18-year-old desegregation consent decree last week, ruling that the district had achieved unitary status, state Rep. Will Bond, D-Jacksonville, was preparing a bill that could force an end to the agreement for the other two participants—North Little Rock School District and the Pulaski County Special School District—and two companion bills to help pay for the first steps.

Bond says that since 1988, the three-district desegregation agreement has cost the state at least $700 million and in the process created a financial dependency upon the part of the participating districts. As a legislator, education has been the drum Bond banged loudest, whether for more minimum foundation aid, more money for facilities, supporting vocational education or…creation of a stand-alone Jacksonville school district carved from the Pulaski County Special School District.
Two years ago, Wilson ruled that as long as the consent decree was in effect and under federal supervision, it was unlikely that he would allow Jacksonville to have its own district. At that time he overruled a state Board of Education decision that area residents could vote on that issue.

House Bill 1829, crafted by Bond, filed Monday and assigned to the House education committee, says that the state “must provide impetus to motivate districts to seek unitary status,” which would let the district out from court supervision.
Currently the state kicks in about $58 million a year for desegregation-related ex-penses such as busing.

Pulaski County’s share of that is about $14 million—about 10 percent of the 18,000-student district’s annual $135 million budget, which Bond says is not much incentive to seek and prove unitary status.

HB 1829 would require the state education department to hire a qualified de-segregation consultant by Oct. 1 and to seek federal court review and determination of current unitary status and also to seek modification of the current consent decree so that the state could craft a post-unitary agreement, phasing out the desegregation funding until all such funds were spent by an agreed-upon date.

Bond’s companion bills, filed Friday, would provide $500,000 to reimburse the attorney general’s office for legal fees spent seeking unitary status and $1 million to hire desegregation consultants.

Last legislative session, Bond put special language in a bill that required the state education department to hire consultants to evaluate the consent decrees and also consider the feasibility of creating a Jacksonville-area school district.

“By modifying consent decrees, the state Depart-ment of Education may create one or more new districts if it does not eliminate the PCSSD from existence, after seeking Federal District Court approval,” the bill reads, unless such approval is moot because the districts have been released from supervision.

The $1.5 million that Bond seeks for the attorney general’s office and to pay consultants would come from the state General Improvement Fund or its successor, which would put Jacksonville resident Mike Wilson in an awkward position.
It was Wilson’s lawsuit that seems about to undo GIF funding, but Wilson has been one of the staunchest supporters of the standalone Jacksonville school district.