Leader Blues

Saturday, October 03, 2009

EDITORIAL >> Here comes the judge

After years of neglect, hundreds of reports, thousands of motions before at least four district judges and $1 billion in state funds divided by Pulaski County’s three public school districts, the thorny 26-year-old desegregation imbroglio may at last be drawing to a close.

We think that’s good for all involved, but particularly good for the Jacksonville activists who have been working for years to get their own school district.

The case has gone before a new judge who is impatient with the drawn-out case. He wants to end this drawn-out drama early next year, which is not a moment too soon for us.

It is an article of faith among the believers that Jacksonville’s growth has been stunted by substandard PCSSD schools while thousands of people who work in Little Rock or at LRAFB choose to live in Cabot with its newer and better schools. Jacksonville will have a hard time getting its own district until PCSSD is declared unitary, and it appears the arrival of a new judge on the scene will only help Jacksonville reach that goal.

At a hearing Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Brian S. Miller said he would consider motions in January to declare the North Little Rock School District and separately the Pulaski County Special School District unitary — that’s court talk for desegregated — and to release them from further court supervision.

The North Little Rock hearing is set for the week of Jan. 11 and the PCSSD hearing is set for the week of Jan. 25.

The Little Rock School District has already been declared unitary and released from court oversight.

John Walker, attorney for the Joshua Interveners, the plaintiffs in the case, says the expensive new schools that PCSSD has and is building in white, wealthy Maumelle is proof that the district is still segregated. He calls those Maumelle schools “Taj Mahals,” while most other schools in the district are old and decrepit.

Walker also says that the proposed Jacksonville school district would also signal a return to the bad old ways. We don’t think so: Look at the rising number of minority students not only in Jacksonville’s public schools but in its new charter school as well.

Miller became the first black district judge on this case when he took over from Judge Bill Wilson this spring. Miller seemed to signal his intent Wednesday to finally wrap this matter up when he refused Walker’s request for more time to hire experts and pore through records of those school districts.

Miller told Walker to go ahead and get his experts, but to be ready for the January hearings.

“This case should have been over a long time ago,” said former state Rep. Will Bond. He seemed heartened by Miller’s actions.

Perhaps no one in the sorry history of this tangled desegregation settlement has done more to bring it to an end than Bond. As a lawmaker, he passed laws encouraging the three districts to extricate themselves from the agreement and provided incentive by having the state agree to pay some legal fees and to gradually phase out the desegregation financial support that the districts have come to rely upon.

Miller asked Little Rock School District attorney, Chris Heller why the district — declared unitary — was still involved in the case.

Heller, in so many words, said Little Rock was there to make sure it continued to get desegregation money from the state, even after the case is finally laid to rest. It’s time to get rid of the lawyers and put children first.