Leader Blues

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

TOP STORY >> District biased, critics charge

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader staff writer

“Facilities are very, very important” to the Joshua Intervenors’ case, John Walker said Tuesday when the desegregation hearing in Little Rock broke for lunch.

But the Pulaski County Special School District has not made a good-faith effort to desegregate and build good schools in poor areas. That’s why the district should not be released from the desegregation agreement and court oversight, Walker said.

“The district has reconstituted, with the state’s help, separate-but-equal facilities prohibited by law,” said Walker, lead attorney for the Joshua Intervenors for about 30 years.

PCSSD has petitioned for unitary status and U.S. District Judge Brian Miller is hearing the case.

MAUMELLE TAJ MAHAL

The district has chosen to spend $58 million building and equipping “a Taj Mahal in Maumelle,” Walker said. “Are rich people entitled to better schools?”

He was referring to the new high school being constructed to replace Oak Grove High School.

“They are putting the burden on an already over burdened population,” he said.

Walker and co-counsel Robert Pressman have challenged PCSSD’s witnesses on all 11 components of Plan 2000, the agreed-upon blueprint for desegregating the school district.

In most cases, they’ve tried to show that the district has fallen short in efforts to close the academic performance gap between whites and blacks, plus the lack of success in getting black students in advanced placement courses and in eliminating the disparity in discipline between black and white students.

But they seem to feel they’ve found a smoking gun in the facilities issue.

Late last week, Walker said the district has chosen to spend $200 million building two new schools in Maumelle, another in Chenal, plus a $3 million addition to Pine Forest, also in Maumelle.

CLARK UP FIRST

PCSSD attorney Sam Jones said he expected to rest his case Wednesday afternoon. Walker said his first witness would be School Board President Tim Clark.

Clark is a Maumelle resident, and led the effort to get a new high school built in Maumelle. He hosted a gala at the Maumelle Country Club when the board voted to build the new high school, the most expensive in district history, and put a huge picture of himself on a billboard captioned “Thanks Maumelle for your help with the new high school. Together we can build a better Maumelle.”

When the Kahn Report studied facilities as part of Plan 2000, it found nine of the district’s 34 schools should be replaced. Oak Grove was not one of them.

Oak Grove last year had fewer than 400 students, yet the new school in Maumelle is being built for 1,500 students.

The district has said that Maumelle is the fastest growing area of the district and that it will fill all those seats in a few years.

Among the schools that were recommended for replacement were Jacksonville Middle School, Jacksonville High School and Jacksonville Elementary School, although no plans have been made to replace any of those schools.

CADILLAC PEOPLE

When Pressman asked Brenda Bowles, assistant superintendent for pupil equity, whether the new school in Maumelle was a Cadillac, she answered, “I don’t know, but it was built for Cadillac people.

Then she said she didn’t like Cadillacs, but called it a Mercedes-Benz school.

“Do you consider that fair and equitable considering the needs at College Station and Harris (elementary schools) and those in Jacksonville?” Pressman asked.

No, said Bowles.

College Station got $159,000 for restroom renovations and Harris got security lights for about $60,000.

Then Bowles revised her answer.

“If those are the new standards (for school construction) then its equitable. If not, then ‘no’,” she said.

In his redirect questioning of Bowles, Jones had Bowles read from letters regarding the new schools, testimony intended to show that Walker and the Joshua Intervenors were notified and had every opportunity to challenge the decision to build the new schools at Maumelle and Chenal and that in every case, they apparently declined.

Plan 2000 gave them 14 days after notification of the decision to build a new school to file a formal motion in opposition.

Jerry Holder, PCSSD’s director of plant planning, said that Oak Grove had deteriorated since the Kahn Report found it adequate for instruction, but that for purposes of the Americans with Disabilities Act and for safety, it should be rehabilitated at an estimated cost of $6.5 million.