Leader Blues

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

TOP STORY > >Districts have no proposal for judge

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

Although technically in negotiations to end the school-desegregation agreement, officials of neither the Pulaski County Special School District nor the North Little Rock School District have prepared a plan or a proposal, much to the annoyance of state
Rep. Will Bond (D-Jacksonville) and others on the General Assembly’s Desegregation Litigation Oversight Subcommittee.

“How can you negotiate when you don’t know what it is you want?” Bond asked representatives of each of the school districts when the subcommittee met Tuesday morning at the state Capitol.

Bond was asking hard questions and taking names as he challenged attorneys for both school districts and to a lesser degree, officials of the Little Rock School District, which has at least the outline of a plan.

“The districts don’t have a fiscal plan from which to negotiate,” said Bond. “The attitude seems to be, ‘We’re going to get all we can, then figure out what to do.’”

“The school board members have not given mea directive other than to keep an open mind,” said Sam Jones, attorney for PCSSD. Supt. James Sharpe briefly addressed the committee, and then deferred to Jones.

Parties to the negotiations include the three school districts, school districts, the Joshua interveners, the Knight interveners and the state Attorney General’s Office.

“The process is not moving along fast enough,” said Bond, “and I’m frustrated.”

Currently, the state is financing the desegregation agreement to the tune of about $60 million a year, primarily to pay for minority-to-majority transfers, magnet schools and the transportation costs associated with them.

Of that, Little Rock gets about $26 million, North Little Rock gets about $10 million and PCSSD gets about $16 million.

The state Legislature has said the desegregation money could be phased out over as long as seven years.

“Is there a fiscal plan to end the lawsuit?” Bond asked Jones.

“We have to know how far to cut,” Jones replied.

The three districts have been locked in a desegregation agreement since the mid 1980s and each district much prove that it is essentially desegregated (unitary) before it can be released from the agreement.

But the large amount of money the districts receive from the state has turned into a disincentive, according to Bond.

The agreement can be ended by court decree or else by negotiation.

District Judge Bill Wilson has ruled the Little Rock District unitary, but that ruling is being challenged by the Joshua Intervenors in the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The North Little Rock District is considered unitary, but has not yet been declared and released from the agreement.

Jones, the PCSSD attorney, says he believes that district is essentially desegregated as well, but Judge Wilson won’t rule until he hears back from the Court of Appeals on the Little Rock appeal.

State Rep. Linda Chesterfield, chairman of the committee, asked Jones if PCSSD had a concrete plan in place should unitary status be granted.

“I appreciate the fluid nature of your oratory,” Chesterfield told Jones, in a humorous effort to pin him down.

“We don’t have a concrete plan,” Jones said. “We know how to spell ‘fiscal distress,’” he said, alluding to the district’s recent fiscal distress designation and strict oversight by the state from which it was released just over a year ago.

“We’re not cogitating a blank slate,” Jones added.

He said if the district were released from the desegregation agreement, that reduced revenues from the state would require reduced costs by the district.

When North Little Rock Superintendent Kenneth Kirspel and board attorney Stephen Jones came before the committee, Chesterfield asked, “What are you doing? There are a lot of unknowns and I’m hard put to figure out what’s being discussed (in negotiations),” she said.

“I want it to move faster,” said Bond. “Have you received any requests for discovery?”

Jones said the district had provided a lot of information but hadn’t been asked for discovery. He said no one had said they would oppose his district’s unitary status, nor had anyone said they are not going to oppose.

“Some negotiations are not occurring in good faith by some parties,” said Bond.

Jones said he believed everyone was negotiating in good faith.

Bond said that when he negotiated a settlement on behalf of a client in court, “I don’t go in blindly without some plan of how we want to end up.”

“It’s an issue of getting the cart before the horse,” Jones responded. “The district has to identify programs that could be cut.”

Bond winced visibly, and then asked, “Why hasn’t that been done yet?”

Jones said the district didn’t want to disrupt or frighten parents and students with talk of programs that could be eliminated.

A recently released assessment by the court’s Office of Desegregation Monitoring concludes that North Little Rock is unitary and a similar report should be completed for PCSSD by September, according to Judge Andree Roaf, director of the office.

“You are not going to escape Judge Wilson no matter how it’s settled,” said Roaf.

He will look at the terms of the agreement—a contract—even if a settlement is negotiated.