Leader Blues

Friday, March 07, 2008

TOP STORY > >District still can’t get out of court

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

Despite attempts to be declared unitary – achieving desegregation – by the beginning of the 2008-2009 school year, Pulaski County’s three school districts are likely to be bound by the existing desegregation agreement for at least another year, according to state Rep. Will Bond of Jacksonville.

During Bond’s three terms in the state Legislature, he has worked to encourage Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County Special school districts to seek unitary status and to make it possible for Jacksonville to carve a stand-alone school district.

District Judge Bill Wilson made achievement of unitary status a prerequisite before allowing an election on the question of forming a new Jacksonville district, but Bond has said that even without such a district, it was time for the districts to be declared unitary and for the state to stop subsidizing them to the tune of about $60 million a year.

Toward that end, Bond passed legislation providing as much as $250,000 in legal fees for districts achieving unitary status by June 14.

But in an order this year, Wilson said he wouldn’t hear the matter until the Eighth District Court of Appeals hears a challenge of the Little Rock case, and that he would not—and wasn’t bound to—hear the unitary status petitions from North Little Rock and PCSSD by the June 14 deadline.

Little Rock was declared unitary last year.

That “essentially puts off a unitary decision by the court until next school year,” Bond said. “(The June 14 deadline) was set like that because it’s the end of the current school year. This pushes the decision back at least another full school year.”

ASSIGNMENT UNITARY

Bond said there seemed to be no disagreement that PCSSD has achieved unitary status in student assignment, which could call in to question the constitutionality of race-based transfers, such as majority-to-minority transfers, and perhaps the notion of magnet schools.

The U.S Supreme Court ruled last year that race-based remedies were legal only where required by court order, which is currently the case for at least PCSSD and North Little Rock.

Bond said he hoped that the state attorney general’s office was meeting with the districts to come up with an agreement to end the case once Wilson is prepared to proceed.

“It’s in everyone’s interest to negotiate a phase-out of state desegregation funding over time,” Bond said. “I think everyone realizes that this is coming to an end pretty soon.”

MAKING ROUNDS

“I don’t know that anyone is working on a proposal,” said Jones. “I think the attorney general’s office is making the rounds, taking temperature and seeing what the issues are, but nobody’s shown me an outline.”

Jones said he thought Wilson was waiting to see if the federal appeals court gave new standards to apply in its ruling on the Little Rock appeal.

He said Wilson could be hoping or expecting that it could be easier after the ruling to grant unitary status.
“I think oral arguments are this month. I have a feeling that (the appeals court) will rule fairly quickly,” he added.