Leader Blues

Saturday, October 03, 2009

TOP STORY >> PCSSD is closer to leaving court

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

After years of waiting, Pulaski County Special School District finally will get a hearing on a petition for unitary status from U.S. Dist. Judge Brian S. Miller, who has the authority to release the district from the desegregation agreement and from court oversight.

In a status hearing Wednesday, Miller tentatively set a week-long hearing for the district beginning Jan. 25. That’s two weeks after the Jan. 11 hearing to decide the unitary status of the North Little Rock School District.

This is important not only because PCSSD would be released from court oversight, but because the most likely scenario for Jacksonville to get its own school district requires that PCSSD be first declared unitary.

PCSSD’s attorney, Sam Jones, will argue that the district is in substantial compliance with the Plan 2000 desegregation agreement and should be declared unitary and released from court oversight.

He said after the Wednesday hearing that he would pay close attention to the North Little Rock hearing, then tailor his arguments based on what worked there.

John Walker, lead attorney for the Joshua Intervenors, has once again said unitary status and a Jacksonville school district would undo many of the gains in racial balance achieved slowly and at great cost over the past 26 years.

The desegregation agreement conjoined PCSSD, North Little Rock and Little Rock School Districts, but the courts have since found Little Rock unitary and released it from court oversight.

Walker said that in PCSSD, “actions are being taken to return us to where we were. We need toexplore policies and changes such as the proposed spin off of Jacksonville.”

Walker told Miller that the PCSSD school board has chosen to build a “Taj Mahal” school in affluent Maumelle, where most students are white, and is preparing to build another “Taj Mahal,” also in Maumelle, while most schools throughout the district — especially in the low-income and black areas — are ancient and in serious disrepair.

Walker told the judge that PCSSD had hired four superintendents in the past few years.

“The (desegregation) plan was implemented in different ways at different times by different superintendents,” he said, calling that trend “deleterious.”

“We may be able to persuade the court that further oversight is still necessary,” Walker said.

Walker also agreed with Miller that a black student shouldn’t have to go to school with a white student to get a good education. He later said that separate-but-equal — the standard overturned in 1954 by Brown v. the Board of Education — was acceptable after all, if it was really equal.

Walker asked Miller for more time so he could hire experts to parse records and data about schools, achievement, enrollment, facilities and other matters.

Miller said the case had been going on for decades and that Walker’s experts need to work within the time constraints of the January hearings.

The importance of the issue reinforced by the attendance of many people affiliated with PCSSD and Jacksonville at the Wednesday hearing.

Amog the many attending were state Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, PCSSD acting Superintendent Rob McGill, administrators including Brenda Bowles and Robert Clowers, board members Bill Vasquez and Gwen Williams, Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher, state Rep. Mark Perry, Jacksonville school activist Daniel Gray, Patrick Wilson, who represents the Jacksonville Educating Our Children group, and former state Rep. Will Bond.

Also PACT president Marty Nix, PASS President Emry Chesterfield and lawyer for the Knight Interveners, Mark Burnett, attended.

Miller asked LRSD attorney Chris Heller if his district should be dismissed from the case, since it already had been declared unitary and it was no longer under court oversight.

Heller said that Little Rock was not legally interested in whether or not the other two districts were declared unitary. But it was interested in maintaining for as long as possible continued state desegregation funding for the three districts and protecting Little Rock’s stake in those funds.

Since the beginning of the desegregation agreement, the state has funded magnet schools, majority-to-minority school transfers and the teacher retirement system at a cost of about $1 billion.

The state spends more than $60 million a year on those and related expenditures. The Little Rock District gets the lion’s share of that. The state attorney general’s office has been negotiating with the districts to phase out the supplemental funding over about seven years.