Leader Blues

Friday, April 03, 2009

TOP STORY > >Ruling on deseg will benefit city

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

In a clumsy, slow-motion tango—two steps forward, one step back—the Pulaski County Special School District is a step closer to unitary status, a prerequisite to Jacksonville getting its own school district.

That’s because a three-judge panel of the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis Thursday upheld U.S. District Judge Bill Wilson’s ruling that a showing of “good faith, substantial compliance,” is adequate to rule the Little Rock School District unitary—desegregated.

“The decision is a hallelujah thing,” said Will Bond, who as state representative for six years worked hard to set the stage for unitary school districts and a Jacksonville school district.

“The districts have not negotiated in good faith,” he said. “I hope it can be negotiated. The studies that have been done and the data—anybody with an objective view would say it’s better for all the students for Jacksonville to have its own district.”

Little Rock, PCSSD and the North Little Rock School District have been locked in an expensive embrace under court supervision for decades.

After seven years on the case, Wilson told lawyers in a Thursday- afternoon telephone conference that he was recusing from further involvement.

Both the North Little Rock School District and the Pulaski County Special School District had petitioned Wilson for unitary status. But the judge had refused to begin hearing those motions until the appeals court ruled on the Little Rock case.

The federal district clerk’s office Friday announced that the case would be assigned to District Judge Brian Miller.

“This should expedite the process,” said Daniel Gray, vice president of the Jacksonville World Class Education Organization.

“It should remove barriers to a Jacksonville school district. It’s been a long time coming,” he said.

Bill Vasquez, PCSSD board member representing much of Jacksonville, said he hoped that now the board would set boundaries for a stand-alone Jacksonville district, then excuse the residents within those boundaries from making payment to satisfy an $81 million second-lien bond being considered to finance new schools in Maumelle and Sylvan Hills.

Jacksonville will then have to build or remodel its own schools.

“It’s morally right,” Vasquez said.

Sam Jones, the PCSSD attorney for de-segregation issues, said the district had filed its own motion for unitary status with Wilson in October 2007. But Wilson had placed it aside until the Little Rock appeal was finished.

Jones said the next step is up to the new judge.

He said while a lot remained uncertain, “finally having received a decision on the Little Rock petition clearly advances the ball.”

He said any settlement at this point, whether “global or confined to Jacksonville detachment” would have to be approved by Miller, the new judge.

“This is a huge step in the right direction,” said Mike Wilson, a Jacksonville businessman and lawyer who has been active for many years promoting a Jacksonville district and also the new Lighthouse Charter School in Jacksonville, due to open in August.

He said a standalone Jacksonville district is still years away and speculated that the public charter school could “serve as a foundation of a new district.”

John Walker, representing the Joshua Interveners, could petition the 8h Circuit Court of Appeals for a hearing by the full panel or could ask the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case, but it doesn’t seem likely he would be successful, according to chief Deputy Attorney General Justin Allen.

“It’s more of a contract issue than a constitutional issue,” Allen said.

“We could be a couple of more years, but the enchilada is done.”

The state has been trying to negotiate an end with the three districts to the 20-year desegregation agreement, but the districts were insisting upon full desegregation payments from the state for seven years. The state had offered about half of that, Allen said.

The state desegregation money split by the three district totals about $60 million a year.