Ark., School Districts Reach Desegregation Deal
Arkansas' attorney general unveiled an agreement Thursday that would end payments the state has made for years to boost desegregation efforts in three of its largest school districts.
"This is an historic day," Attorney General Dustin McDaniel told members of the Joint Subcommittee on Desegregation Litigation Oversight, an advisory panel. "This meets or exceeds every goal that this legislature, or previous legislatures, has expressed to me over the years."
Under the proposal—which must be approved by the Legislative Council and school boards for the Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County Special school districts—Arkansas would make four more annual payments of nearly $70 million. The districts would give up their right to sue.
Absent an agreement, a federal judge on Dec. 9 will consider the state's request to stop the payments immediately. Another judge tried to end the disbursements in 2011, but the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said he first had to give all parties a full hearing.
To settle a 1982 lawsuit, the state, the school districts and a group of school patrons reached an agreement in 1989 through which the state would pay for magnet schools, student transfers and other academic initiatives to achieve and maintain a racial balance.
Over the years, the payments have totaled about $1 billion. Since 2007, the Little Rock and North Little Rock districts have been declared "unitary," or substantially desegregated, with the Pulaski County district only partially so.
"This is ridiculous without more teeth," state Rep. Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, complained. She said that if the districts had received so much money for so long, they should receive specific instructions on how to spend additional funds.
"These districts have failed to do what they should have done with the money," she said.
But the attorney general said the federal court wouldn't have declared two districts desegregated if there hadn't been progress.
The Legislative Council meets Friday—its last meeting before the Dec. 9 federal hearing. The oversight panel voted Thursday to not take action on the settlement agreement, but its vote would have been nonbinding anyway.
Little Rock's desegregation battles date to 1957, when nine black teenagers needed the protection of federal troops to integrate Central High School. The 1982 dispute grew out of a claim that the districts surrounding Little Rock hadn't done enough to help city schools desegregate.
Under the agreement unveiled Thursday, payments made for fiscal years ending June 30 in 2015, 2016 and 2017 would be earmarked for desegregation programs, while payments made for the 2018 fiscal year could go only toward improving facilities.
Little Rock would receive more than $37 million each year, Pulaski County nearly $21 million and North Little Rock $7.6 million—the same level of extra appropriations they received this fiscal year.
The schools and McDaniel had traded offers in recent months but had disagreements on how long the payments should last and how much they should be.
The school patrons involved, known as the Joshua Intervenors, were not announced as part of the agreement. Their lawyer, a legislator, attended Thursday's hearing and told members the objectives from the original lawsuit haven't been fully met.
"What we started to obtain years ago have not been obtained," said Rep. John Walker, D-Little Rock. "The original undertakings are yet to be achieved."
McDaniel told the panel that if the state and school boards agree to the settlement, he could illustrate to the judge that the pact would benefit Walker's clients.
"Joshua is a party, but it's just one party and a party that can be settled around," McDaniel said.
"It meets all of our requirements and is good for (his) class," McDaniel said. "We have to demonstrate why his objections should be overruled."
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