Leader Blues

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

TOP STORY >> Judge will set a new hearing for school case

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

Pulaski County Special School District’s desegregation hearing, slated to begin Thursday, has been postponed for the third time since the beginning of the year.U.S. District Judge Brian Miller is expected to set a new hearing date next week.

A person familiar with the situation said the postponement was called because of a sudden health issue with one of the lawyers involved.

A similar hearing to determine whether or not the North Little Rock School District should be considered desegregated and released from court oversight concluded last week. Miller has said he won’t rule on either petition for unitary status until he has reviewed the transcript, which could be weeks or months off, according to Sam Jones, PCSSD’s attorney for the desegregation suit.

10-DAY HEARING

The North Little Rock hearing lasted more than three weeks and based on that, Jones said the PCSSD hearing could take at least one and one-half weeks.

He said the length would pretty much depend on the rigor of the examination and cross-examination by the Joshua Intervenors.

The Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County Special school districts have been entangled in expensive, complicated and inelegant desegregation plans for nearly three decades.

The Little Rock district has been declared unitary and excused from court oversight despite an unsuccessful appeal to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals by the Joshua Intervenors.But now Little Rock is involving itself in the unitary petitions of the other two districts because it wants to keep as much state desegregation money coming its way for as long as possible.

JACKSONVILLE DISTRICT

Many Jacksonville residents believe the road to a stand-alone school district carved from part of PCSSD could be easier if the district is declared unitary.

An amicus brief filed just before Christmas by retired attorney Ben Rice and two other Jacksonville-area residents asked Miller to order an election to decide on a Jacksonville district if he rules PCSSD unitary and releases it from court oversight.

Both the Joshua Intervenors—representing black students and parents and also the Knight Intervenors, who represent district teachers—have expressed opposition to a declaration of unitary status and to a stand-alone Jacksonville district.

Miller had originally set Jan. 11 for a desegregation hearing for the North Little Rock School District and Jan. 25 for PCSSD, but in response to a motion filed by the Joshua Intervenors, the North Little Rock hearing was moved to Jan. 25 and the PCSSD desegregation hearing to Feb. 22.

Tuesday, the judge notified Jones that the hearing would not start Thursday and that next week he would reschedule it.

EXPERTS SAY ‘UNITARY’

When the hearing begins, two desegregation experts hired by the state of Arkansas are expected to testify that PCSSD is in substantial compliance in the important areas of discipline and of teacher and student assignment, according to Justin Allen, chief deputy attorney general.

These two experts are at the top of Jones’ witness list—Christine Rossell and David Armor.

Rossell, a Boston University professor of political science, is an expert on discipline.

“The school district has done an extraordinary job in creating a clear and fair district-wide discipline management plan and a parent/student handbook for student conduct and discipline for both elementary and secondary schools,” Rossell has written.

Through statistical analysis, Rossell says the district has performed in reducing “disproportionality” of discipline between Black students and whites, better than most districts that have been granted unitary status.

“Rossell has some history with the case,” Jones said. “Little Rock (School District) consulted with her for about a decade.”

Armor, a George Mason University professor of public policy in Virginia, will give expert testimony to evaluate racial balance and certified staffing.

“In my opinion the PCSSD has adopted and implemented a desegregation plan that has been effective in meeting the requirements of unitary status that courts have established in the areas of student and staff assignment,” Armor wrote in the introduction of a 14- page report that will be one of 85 exhibits introduced by PCSSD.

Armor says he has testified as an expert witness in more than 30 school desegregation cases.

“Generally, a school board must implement a desegregation plan in good faith that eliminates the vestiges of past discrimination to the extent practicable, and it must not adopt new policies or practices that discriminate on the basis of race,” he wrote.

PCSSD WITNESS LIST

Others on the district’s list of 21 witnesses and 85 exhibits include Brenda Bowles, PCSSD assistant superintendent for equity and pupil services, who will testify on compliance with Plan 2000, the existing desegregation plan; Robert Clowers, the PCSSD director of education accountability; Jerry Holder, director of plant planning; Gary Beck, acting executive director of support services and Marty Alberg, director of the Center for Research in Educational Policy at the University of Memphis.

Others on the PCSSD witness list include:

Laura Shirely, PCSSD director of talented and gifted; John McCraney, coordinator of multi-cultural education; Jenny Dunn, acting director of special education; Debbie Coley, PCSSD assistant superintendent for human resources; Margie Powell, chief of the office of desegregation monitors, and June Elliott, deputy superintendent for learning services.

The Joshua Intervenors, who oppose the petition for unitary status, have submitted a witness list of at least 22 people, not including a decade’s worth of school board members.

JOSHUA LIST

On the Joshua Intervenors list of witnesses are Bowles and Clowers, interim PCSSD Super-intendent Rob McGill, former Superintendent Don Henderson, Steve Ross who was involved in Plan 2000, Rizelle Aaron of the Jacksonville NAACP, Jacksonville Middle School principal Veronica Perkins, Mills High School principal Michael Nellums; Sandra Roy, executive director of the Pulaski Association of Classroom Teachers and of the Pulaski Association of Support Staff, and current and former PCSSD school board members, dating back to 2000.