Leader Blues

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

TOP STORY >>PCSSD looks to court release

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

Intervention by the U.S. Justice Department could impede Pulaski County Special School District’s gaining unitary school status and release from court oversight in time to qualify for its share of the $250,000 carrot dangled by state legislators last session.

That’s what Andree Roaf, recently appointed director of the Office of Desegregation Monitoring, told Jacksonville Rotarians Monday.

The money would be used to help offset legal fees for PCSSD and North Little Rock in satisfying the court that they had essentially desegregated and should be released from court oversight.

Roaf, a retired state Supreme Court and state appeals court judge, said U.S. District Judge Bill Wilson found the Little Rock School District unitary—in compliance—in February and released it from further oversight, although the Joshua Interveners are challenging that status in the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals at St. Louis.

North Little Rock filed for unitary status in September.

State Rep. Will Bond, D-Jacksonville, author of the legislation, said Tuesday he believed that North Little Rock District was unitary and would be ruled so and that PCSSD was unitary in several areas.

Wilson has ruled that PCSSD’s release from court oversight is a prerequisite to a stand-alone Jacksonville school district.
The goal of the desegregation agreements was to create school districts with racially balanced enrollment at each school and with equal opportunity as evidenced by diverse representation among teachers, employees, sports teams, discipline and academic achievement.

A provision in the desegregation contract between PCSSD and the Joshua Interveners—parents of the original black students who sued the school districts in 1982—allows the interveners to raise compliance issues and if they deem the district’s response unsatisfactory, they can ask the Justice Department to intervene to reach an agreement. Thus, the Justice Department became involved in 2005, and Roaf said there was no telling when the department would rule.

For that reason, PCSSD attorney Sam Jones has applied for unitary status only in student assignments and other limited areas, Roaf said. She said she suspected that the Justice Department decision, even if favorable to the district, would not be made before the June 14, 2008 deadline set by the state General Assembly last session.

“The June timetable is not a realistic goal for the case to be over,” she said.

Bond said he didn’t believe a decision from the Justice Department was necessary for the districts to apply for unitary status by Oct. 31 and for Judge Wilson to rule before June 14. Over the years, the North Little Rock District has been released from oversight in several areas, she said, and in September it ruled for full unitary status.

It would seem nearly impossible for the state’s first black female judge at the highest level to be upstaged by a family member, but Roaf’s son, Wille Roaf, is an 11-time all-pro offensive lineman for the New Orleans Saints and the Kansas City Chiefs.

Roaf said that what is generally considered a single-desegregation agreement is really a series of contracts dating back to 1992 between the three school districts and also with the state Education Department. The PCSSD agreement is known as Plan 2000.

Roaf said she believes the $44 million a year of state money split annually among the three school districts had served as a disincentive for achieving unitary status. Roaf said much of the money was used for transporting students—busing—but that the districts had come over the years to expect that money in their budgets.

Bond’s legislation would allow the districts to continue getting the state money for as long as seven years even if all districts are ruled unitary. The districts also are concerned that without the money, they will backslide into more segregated circumstances, Roaf said.

“We all have to work out what it will be like for the district (without the additional funding) and more importantly, for the children.”

Bond said he agreed. “The real issue is resegregation, which is clearly what’s happening,” he said, noting both Little Rock and North Little Rock schools are predominantly black and that PCSSD is trending that way.

Jacksonville’s population is 64 percent white, but the enrollment at Jacksonville Boys Middle School is 64 percent black, he said, noting that it wasn’t difficult for those moving to the Jacksonville area, such as Little Rock Air Force Base personnel, to move an additional seven miles to Cabot, where the schools are predominantly white.

Currently, Little Rock has about 26,000 students, North Little Rock about 9,000 and PCSSD about 18,000. “Pulaski County is the only one to go down,” she said.

It has 18,000 students but capacity for 28,000. Roaf said no one speaks for Wilson, but that she suspects that her appointment as desegregation monitor was an implicit statement that he would like to put the ongoing saga to rest. “The Office of Desegregation Monitoring is committed to do everything we can to assist both (remaining) districts,” she said.

Eighty percent of black students at some schools have been disciplined or expelled, said Roaf.

Jacksonville High School Principal Kenneth Clark said his school has poor test results because its best students have moved to Mills University School.

“Jacksonville is like a special education magnet,” he said. “We’ve got about 250 special ed students.” With student scores counted under the No Child Left Behind law, that hurts the school’s scores. “PCSSD has some of the best special education in the state,” said Margie Powell, a desegregation monitor.