Leader Blues

Friday, October 24, 2008

TOP STORY > >Talks on schools stalled

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

“I don’t want to slam hope,” state Rep. Will Bond said Friday of efforts to settle the desegregation agreement, “but the state has put forward a reasonable offer to wind the case down and no substantial effort has been made by the districts to wind it up.”

Pulaski County Special School District, North Little Rock School District and Little Rock School District are parties to the 1989 desegregation agreement. The pact has cost the state about $60 million a year in additional funding and has cast a shadow over all aspects of district operations.

The Little Rock School District has been declared unitary — desegregated — but the Joshua Intervenors have challenged that designation by U.S. District Judge Bill Wilson and the case has languished before the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Bond said he is 90 percent to 95 percent sure that Wilson’s ruling will be upheld, and he believes the appeal will be settled by year’s end.

Meanwhile, “the whole case is stalled out,” Bond said.

Judge Wilson has said he would not hold additional hearings until that case is settled, Bond said.

“It’s affecting negotiation for a settle ment. Nobody feels the sense of urgency we would like them to feel, either to get this litigated or settled.”

Bond said Act 395 of 2007 offers financial incentives in the form of as much as $250,000 in attorneys’ fees if it’s settled by Dec. 31.

“I thought it was a generous offer and a reasonable way to conclude the case,” Bond said, “but I don’t know if we’ve had a good faith effort on the districts’ part.

“The idea was to have a carrot-and-stick approach. Out of the three, Pulaski County is the most sincere in wanting to wrap this up, but it’s going to take all three districts and the intervenors.”

State assistance isn’t going to go on forever, he said. “I think they feel it’s an entitlement that will continue as long as they want,” he said of the desegregation funding.

“I think this is incentivized improperly. If the districts don’t get out of the desegregation agreement, they keep getting money.

If they do, the money gets cut off.”

Bond said he believed all three districts were “Legally compliant and unitary.”

Failure to resolve the desegregation case doesn’t preclude Jacksonville from having its own district, he said.

Jacksonville’s most recent attempt was turned back when the PCSSD went to court to block a vote on the issue, but earlier this year, the board unanimously endorsed the idea of a stand-alone Jacksonville district.

“The whole idea of the desegregation agreement was to create equal opportunity for African- American students. What’s in the best interest of all students in our area is for Jacksonville to have its own district. They’ll have improved buildings almost immediately,” he said.

Meanwhile, Asst. Attorney Gen. Scott P. Richardson has sent a letter to the three districts calling their proposals unacceptable on several counts including the proposal that the districts continue to split $70 million a year for seven years during the phase-out of state funding.

“I was disappointed in the tenor and tone (of the letter)” said Sam Jones, PCSSD’s attorney for desegregation matters. “I don’t know why they have to posture. It’s just politics.

“We are working on a refined analysis of what we’ve been spending the money for and how we will adjust to the loss of the money and what programs are necessary to continue to be funded during and after the phase- out,” Jones said.

“Folks in Jacksonville have a stake in the outcome of the negotiations,” he said. “They’ll receive the pro-rata share of settlement.”

The Pulaski district is working hard to try to negotiate an arrangement satisfactory to the state, according to Jones. “My job is to listen, make suggestions and bring the best deal we can get … to the board and see if they agree.”