Trial Begins in Little Rock Desegregation Case

By Tom Mirga — January 11, 1984 3 min read

A federal district judge in Little Rock, Ark., heard opening arguments last week in a case that could result in the consolidation of the mostly black city school district with two predominantly white suburban school systems.

Lawyers for the Little Rock School District told U.S. District Judge Henry Woods last week that segregation among the city’s 19,500 students was exacerbated by racially restrictive housing policies and the selection of sites for school and public-housing construction in outlying North Little Rock and Pulaski County.

But in his opening statement before Judge Woods, Alston Jennings, the county school system’s lawyer, contended that “problems in the Little Rock district are not the result [of actions taken] by the county district.”

W.H. Dillahunty, who represents the North Little Rock schools, added that he will show that his clients “should have not been sued.”

Last week’s trial followed more than a year of negotiations between the city and outlying schools that were ordered by Judge Woods to try to ward off potentially costly and drawn-out legal proceedings. The parties to the suit agreed to postpone the original October trial date to allow more time for mediation, but talks broke down in mid-November, according to a spokesman for the city schools.

“We are not seeking consolidation for consolidation’s sake,” said the spokesman, Julia McGehee. “The point is that we can no longer maintain an integrated school district.”

In 1973, when widespread busing began in the district, 30 percent of the school system’s enrollment was black and 70 percent was white, she said.

“Today, the situation has totally flip-flopped, and now we’re 30-percent white and 70-percent black,” Ms. McGehee continued.

Approximately 37 percent of the students in North Little Rock and 23 percent of the students in Pulaski County are black, she added.

Shortly before classes began in August 1982, a federal appeals court overturned a lower-court ruling in the city’s 27-year-old desegregation lawsuit, Clark v. Board of Education, and allowed the city schools to proceed with a student-assignment plan that left about 1,500 black students in four predominantly one-race schools. (See Education Week, Aug. 25, 1982.)

According to Ms. McGehee, the court also instructed the district to investigate the possibility of massive interdistrict student transfers in order to further desegregation in the city schools.

Judge Woods has indicated that arguments in the case should be completed by the end of this week.

‘Unitary’ District

In other school-desegregation-related activity, the Denver school board voted on Dec. 15 to ask a federal district judge to declare the school district “unitary” and end busing for approximately 11,000 children.

But about three weeks later, U.S. District Judge Richard P. Matsch ruled in a separate part of the case, Keyes v. School District No. 1, that the school board was not providing adequate services to language-minority students in the city and set a Jan. 20 hearing date to determine an appropriate remedy for that situation.

The school board’s December vote marked the third time in two years that it has sought an end to its busing plan.

Approximately 38 percent of the district’s 52,000 students are white, 22 percent are black, and 33 percent are Hispanic.

In March 1982, Judge Matsch rejected “as an exercise in escapism” a desegregation plan by the school board that would have replaced busing with neighborhood schools and a freedom-of-choice policy. Two months later, he accepted “with considerable reservation” an alternative plan that reduced the number of children being bused from 13,600 to about 11,000, increased the number of “walk-in” neighborhood schools from 34 to 52, and set up new grade structures. (See Education Week, May 19, 1982.)

Last April, Judge Mastch reiterated his disappointment with the revised plan and asked the school board to submit a new one. The board, however, never complied with that request.

A version of this article appeared in the January 11, 1984 edition of Education Week as Trial Begins in Little Rock Desegregation Case