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District Ordered To Reduce Teacher Transfers

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A federal judge in Arkansas last week ordered the Little Rock School District to reduce the number of teachers it plans to reassign in the upcoming school year as part of a comprehensive school-desegregation program.

The order was issued in the wake of criticism of the plan, which would have reassigned almost half of the district's teachers to different schools next fall, in an effort to distribute staff members equally at each school on the basis of race, sex, age, experience, and number of degrees attained.

The reassignment plan is part of a five-year effort to desegregate the city's schools, which was approved by U.S. District Judge Henry Woods earlier this year. It also features magnet schools to draw suburban white students into the predominantly black district, a "controlled choice'' student-assignment policy within the city district's boundaries, and racial-balance goals for the adjacent North Little Rock and Pulaski County school districts.

The controlled-choice plan adopted by Little Rock officials is similar to a plan that was pioneered in Cambridge, Mass., and has since been adopted by a number of districts.

The plan requires all parents in the district to submit a list of the schools that they would prefer their children to attend, although none are guaranteed to receive their first choices. Unlike other districts that have adopted the model, Little Rock students will first be assigned to schools to ensure that all schools are racially balanced before the transfer process begins.

After announcing the proposed teacher reassignments, the Little Rock school board, partly as a result of public pressure, voted to scale back its reassignment plan before the judge issued his May 13 order.

At a meeting held the night before the latest hearing, the board voted to allow 80 percent of the teachers to remain in their present assignments--even though, under an earlier agreement with the local teachers' union, it could have transferred the same proportion of the teachers.

In his order, Judge Woods criticized the district for planning such a massive transfer of teachers when he had earlier ordered that such reassignments be minimized. He said he supported the 80-percent retention policy, but noted that more than 20 percent of the elementary-school teachers will have to be reassigned, although he did not set a maximum limit.

The judge also said that race should be the only factor in reassigning teachers. Though the school board currently is not disputing this, said John Billhammer, a lawyer for the district, it may eventually attempt to distribute the teaching staff evenly according to sex, age, and experience.

The judge set deadlines for the district to submit to him the names and race of all teachers reassigned, the names of the schools to which they have been sent, and the reasons for the change. This is "to ensure that there is no further misunderstanding of this teacher-assignment order,'' he said.

Mr. Billhammer said school officials believe that changing the reassignment policy "will lessen the desegregative effects of our plan.''

Judge Woods also expressed concerns about the forced reassignment of students in the first year of the controlled-choice plan, noting that he had previously ordered that student reassignments be kept to a minimum.

He appointed a three-member citizens' committee to monitor the progress of the desegregation plan, and ordered the district to submit a report to the committee, once the student assignments are completed.

After hearing from the citizens' committee, he wrote, he intends to either approve, modify, or reject the reassignment plan. "Until that time, no student assignments are final,'' the order stated.

In late April, the Little Rock school board, at the advice of its lawyers, asked Judge Woods to remove himself from the desegregation matter on the grounds that he "was reacting to public opinion,'' according to Julia McGehee, a spokesman for the district. At the April 29 hearing, the judge said he would not comply with the request.

In a related development, the Little Rock school board said it would appeal two provisions of the judge's previous orders regarding student assignment goals for the adjacent suburban districts and the state's liability to provide compensatory aid to city students.

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