Federal Judge Orders Consolidation Of Little Rock, Suburban Districts

By Tom Mirga — April 25, 1984 6 min read

A federal district judge in Little Rock, Ark., has ruled that two largely white suburban school districts have contributed to student segregation in the city schools and thus should be consolidated with the predominantly black district.

“In my view, public education in this community has reached a crisis stage,” said U.S. District Judge Henry Woods in his April 13 order. “The problem cannot be avoided by equivocation or half measures.”

Judge Woods set a hearing for April 30 to begin working out details of the consolidation, which will affect approximately 56,000 students in the metropolitan Little Rock area.

However, lawyers for the suburban North Little Rock and Pulaski County school districts have announced that they will seek a stay of the order pending their appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.

“This opinion is based almost entirely upon the conclusions of outside experts, who were basing their conclusions on the conclusions of others,” said W.H. Dillahaunty, who represents North Little Rock district in Little Rock School District v. Pulaski County School District, et al. “I know that sounds convoluted, but I guess I feel just like that gal in that commercial: ‘Where’s the proof?”’

History of Resistance

Little Rock became synonymous with massive resistance to desegregration when, in 1957, Governor Orval Faubus ordered the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the enrollment of nine black schoolchildren in then all-white Central High School. President Eisenhower responded by federalizing the National Guard unit and by dispatching troops of the 101st Airborne Division to disperse mobs of angry whites and to ensure that a federal court order to desegregate was carried out.

According to papers filed with the court in the latest round of litigation, the Little Rock school district has become smaller and increasingly black during the past 10 years. In the 1973-74 school year, 48 percent of the district’s 21,095 students were black. Today, the total number of students has shrunk to 19,052, of whom 70 percent are black.

By comparison, the North Little Rock district enrolls 9,051 students, of whom 36 percent are black, and the Pulaski County district enrolls 27,839 students, of whom 22 percent are black. The North Little Rock district lies directly across the Arkansas River from the city school district, and the Pulaski County district encircles them both.

Contributed to Segregation

In his 64-page memorandum and opinion, Judge Woods held that over a period of years, the suburban districts, in concert with other public and private agencies, acted in a manner that contributed to segregated housing and other conditions that resulted in increasing segregation in the Little Rock district.

For example, he noted that the districts accepted white students from Little Rock in 1959 when Governor Faubus closed the city schools following a U.S. Supreme Court desegregation order. Judge Woods also wrote that talks among the three districts regarding voluntary consolidation in the late 1960’s were broken off by the suburban districts following the city district’s adoption of a full-scale desegregation plan. In addition, he noted that neither suburban district provides “compensatory” educational assistance for its black students.

Furthermore, Judge Woods wrote that the North Little Rock district has failed to hire and promote black teachers and administrators in numbers proportionate to their representation in the city and that it disproportionately classifies black students as educably mentally retarded.

The Pulaski County district, he continued, has failed in large part to comply with the provisions of a consent decree that settled a separate desegregation suit. Among other things, he noted the district has failed to guarantee racially neutral policies on the selection of school-construction sites, to establish a biracial council as ordered, and to seat two blacks on the county board as nonvoting, ex-officio members.

“The deficiencies in the Pulaski County and North Little Rock districts have had severe interdistrict effects,” Judge Woods wrote. “The only long-term or even short-term solution to these problems is consolidation.

“Not only will this solution provide the basis for the establishment of a unitary school system, but it should provide economy in administration and transportation that will contribute toward a quality education for all students in this county,” he concluded.

Related Activity

In other desegregation cases around the country:

Missouri Attorney General John D. Ashcroft has asked the federal district judge overseeing the St. Louis metropolitan area’s school-desegregation lawsuit to reject proposals for five magnet programs in the city next year.

In a petition filed with U.S. District Judge William L. Hungate on April 9, Mr. Ashcroft said the programs were approved without careful study to determine whether they would actually attract white students from St. Louis County into the predominantly black city schools.

Three of the five programs ap-proved for expansion or duplication would have only a “feeble drawing power,” he contended.

Suit Filed in Yonkers

The Yonkers (N.Y.) Board of Education voted unanimously on April 14 to sue the city of Yonkers for $12.5 million to prevent the shutdown of public schools on April 30, when the district is expected to run out of money.

The legal battle pits the school board and Mayor Angelo R. Martinelli against the city’s corporation council, which contends it does not have the ability to raise the funds. The city faces a projected $42-million budget deficit in the fiscal year that begins on July 1.

The state has offered the city a $9.5-million loan to help see the schools through the financial crunch, but it was contingent on the imposition of a state financial-control board. A majority of the seven-member council rejected the offer earlier this month.

The school district’s current financial status bodes ill for a proposed out-of-court settlement of the district’s school-desegregation lawsuit.

Under the terms of an agreement reached last month by the school board, the U.S. Justice Department, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the district was required to come up with $18 million by April 20 to finance the voluntary integration plan. The case is to go back to trial in federal district court if the funds are not made available.

Los Angeles Desegregation

Lawyers for the naacp and the Los Angeles Unified School District, in a rare full session of a federal appeals court earlier this month, argued over the civil-rights group’s right to pursue a lawsuit accusing the district of practicing “longstanding” segregation.

The organization has attempted to resurrect a class action rejected last September by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. It claims that the school district has failed to take steps to eliminate all vestiges of state-imposed segregation.

The appeals court is expected to issue its ruling in the case, naacp v. Los Angeles Unified School District, by July.

Meanwhile, the city school board last week agreed to pay $1.35 million in fees to lawyers for the naacp and other civil-rights groups who argued for the use of busing as a tool to desegregate the city’s schools.

The payment of the fees was originally required by a federal district judge in November 1981 following the passage of a voter-approved initiative that halted mandatory busing and effectively killed the lawsuit.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 1984 edition of Education Week as Federal Judge Orders Consolidation Of Little Rock, Suburban Districts