Leader Blues

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

TOP STORY >> Deseg case to be heard on Monday

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

Three work days after U.S. District Judge Bill Wilson handed off the decades-old school desegregation case, his replacement notified attorneys for the Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County Special school districts and the state attorney general’s office to appear for a 10 a.m. status hearing Monday at the Richard S. Arnold Federal Court Building in Little Rock.

In an order emailed to the parties, Judge Brian Miller directed the parties to be prepared to address the following: (1) whether the Pulaski County School District and the North Little Rock School District have reached unitary status; (2) if the districts have not reached unitary status, what are the impediments to the districts reaching unitary status; (3) if the districts have not reached unitary status, how are these districts distinguished from the Little Rock School District; and (4) if the districts have not reached unitary status, how many more years of federal monitoring will be necessary for the districts to reach unitary status?

The three districts have been entangled in a sprawling desegregation agreement for more than 20 years, seemingly with little progress made toward the goal of desegregation. But last week, a three-judge panel of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Wilson’s ruling that the Little Rock District was unitary, based on “good faith, substantial compliance” with the agreement.

The court ruled that standard was adequate.

Pulaski County and North Little Rock had both petitioned Wilson for unitary status last year, but Wilson said he would not proceed until the Eighth Circuit ruled on the appeal of his Little Rock unitary ruling.

Asked if PCSSD would be prepared to respond to Miller’s request, district attorney Sam Jones said, “We are working on it. I am rearranging my travel schedule to be present. We will be prepared to answer the judge’s questions.”

“We’ll have counsel there and we’ll have a say on the four issues,” said chief deputy Attorney General Justin Allen. The state is not technically a party to the desegregation agreement.

“We may petition the court to modify settlement payments in the future,” he said.

The state supports the desegregation agreement to the tune of about $60 million a year, payments that could be phased out or stopped once all three districts are ruled unitary and released from court supervision.

“It’s a very complex matter,” said Allen, and the new judge seems to be “homing in on these four issues.”

“It sure sounds like he’s focused on the larger question,” said Will Bond, a lawyer and president of the Jacksonville World Class Education Organization—one group working toward detaching a standalone Jacksonville/North Pulaski district from PCSSD.

“I’m excited he’s moving along,” Bond said. “Judge Wilson should have set trial dates long ago. It’s time to wrap it up.”

Bond said that with the plaintiff in the original case, Little Rock School District, being declared unitary, they have “clearly established a significant change in circumstance over the length of the case,” Bond said.