Published Online: November 22, 2013

Judge gives 1st OK to end Little Rock schools suit

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — A federal judge gave preliminary approval Friday to a proposed settlement that would bring an end to a decades-long desegregation lawsuit involving Little Rock-area schools.

U.S. District Judge Price Marshall said the terms of the settlement passed legal muster, but he set a fairness hearing for Jan. 13-14 for the agreement to become official.

Since 1989, the state has spent more than $1 billion on desegregation efforts in the Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County school districts. The lawsuit was filed in 1982, but its roots extend to the acrimonious integration of Little Rock public schools in 1957, during which President Dwight Eisenhower sent in federal troops to ensure nine black students could attend Little Rock Central High School.

Under the proposed agreement, the special payments would end with the 2017-18 school year.

Until then, annual payments of $37.3 million for Little Rock, $20.8 million for Pulaski County and $7.6 million for North Little Rock would continue. The last year of the payments would be for facilities, but could not to be used for athletics or administration buildings.

Parties to the lawsuit reached an accord, though attorney John Walker, who represents black school patrons in Little Rock, didn't come aboard until Monday night. Walker said he held out for special language in the settlement to address what he says are inadequacies in the education of African-American students living in Little Rock.

Walker said that if the Little Rock district doesn't follow through, he would file another lawsuit.

Two years ago, U.S. District Judge Brian Miller ordered an immediate end to the desegregation payments, but the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said he hadn't given everyone involved a full hearing. The state subsequently asked to end the payments altogether, and a federal court hearing was set for Dec. 9 on its request. In advance of that hearing, the sides negotiated an end date.

Marshall now has left open the possibility of a trial, which would be conducted in early 2014 if the settlement isn't approved or if the accord somehow breaks down.

The Little Rock and North Little Rock districts have been declared unitary — or substantially desegregated — by federal judges, but the Pulaski County district has not yet achieved that distinction.

The pact allows Pulaski County to remove the Jacksonville area from its jurisdiction so the city can form its own school district. Parents have pushed for a Jacksonville school district for years, and lawyers said allowing that to happen would help move the remainder of the district toward unitary status.

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