Leader Blues

Thursday, November 01, 2007

TOP STORY >>Filing helps separation

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

Jacksonville-area residents could be one step closer to realizing the goal of a separate school district.

With a day to spare, the Pulaski County Special School District on Monday filed a motion seeking unitary school status in time to qualify for as much as $250,000 in legal-fee reimbursement.

District Judge Bill Wilson ruled previously that Jacksonville could not have its own district until PCSSD was unitary—that is, in compliance with its existing desegregation agreements.

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.

The motion, filed for PCSSD by Sam Jones in U.S. District Court at Little Rock, states that the district “has complied with or is in substantial compliance with” the 2000 desegregation plan and should be declared unitary and released from federal court supervision.

It was state Rep. Will Bond, D-Jacksonville, who drafted and championed legislation encouraging the North Little Rock School District and PCSSD to seek unitary status after 25 years by dangling the carrot of reimbursement of legal fees and by promising continuation of the state’s large desegregation contribution for as long as seven years.

Wilson ruled that the Little Rock District was unitary in February and the North Little Rock District, already ruled partially unitary, filed for release in September.

“I think it’s time,” Bond said Tuesday. “We feel that with Little Rock already granted unitary status and North Little Rock already filed and Pulaski requesting—now is an opportunity for the court to end this case or put it on track in the very near future.”

Bond’s bill also states that districts must be ruled unitary by Wilson on or before June 14 to qualify for the money, but state law doesn’t have the authority to make Wilson rule by that date, Jones said.

“He is absolutely not bound by the legislature,” said Jones of Wilson. “I’m trying to harmonize the legislature with the prerogatives of the court,” he added.

“The legislature’s been pretty aggressive over the past couple years to (encourage districts to seek) unitary status,” Bond said.

Over the past 25 years, the state has spent more than $750 million on the three districts—money no other districts in the state receive, Bond said.

“Right now, the state contributes about $60 million a year toward desegregation (of the three districts),” he said.
Jones said the district, which voted in August to seek full unitary status, is essentially in compliance in all areas mentioned in Plan 2000, although his motion cites only three.

Jones said he talked recently with civil rights lawyer John Walker, who “has not indicated that he will support the filing.”

Walker is the lawyer representing the Joshua Interveners—parents of black students in the districts. He has regularly opposed settlements or findings of unitary status.

Currently Walker has asked the U.S. Justice Department to intervene in the matter of discipline, which he says seems to target black male students in the district without sufficient remedy from PCSSD.

Jones said Wilson had the authority to bypass or ignore the Justice Department’s investigation in making his ruling, but could just as easily ask for a report from the department or yield to it.

Plan 2000 states that the ideal racial composition for interdistrict schools would be close to 50 percent black, 50 percent white and that the districts would recruit students, teachers and administrators to seek racial balance.

Jones and PCSSD say the district has done this.

District resources are to be allocated equitably among the schools.

“Federal judicial supervision over the facets of the operation of a school system was never intended to extend beyond the time required to remedy the effects of past intentional discrimination,” Jones argues in his brief to the court.

Jones says the district is unitary in student assignment to schools.

“Only four of the school district’s elementary schools feature a black-student enrollment outside (the 20 percent to 51 percent) range,” he wrote.

Only Mills High School, among the district’s secondary schools, fails to fit in the targeted racial range, meaning that altogether, only five of the district’s 36 schools are out of compliance with enrollment guidelines.

The district argues that it hasn’t altered attendance zones and that any change in the racial composition of a school is because of “private decisions” of district patrons.

Jones argues that because of the influx of money and state guidance for school facilities caused by the Lake View decision, all school facilities are being upgraded.

“Once a school district is declared unitary and in compliance with the Constitution, the jurisdiction of the federal district court is ended,” Jones wrote.

He said the district had made a good-faith effort and was in “substantial compliance” with its own Plan 2000.
Jones said it is now up to Wilson to set the court calendar for various hearings, motions and arguments.