U.S. Judge Approves a Plan for Merger of 3 Little Rock Districts

By Tom Mirga — December 05, 1984 7 min read

A federal district judge in Little Rock, Ark., has given his approval to a school-desegregation plan that would consolidate the predominantly black city school district with two predominantly white suburban districts.

In his Nov. 19 order, however, U.S. District Judge Henry Woods delayed implementation until the expected appeals by the suburban North Little Rock and Pulaski County school districts are resolved. The Pulaski County school board has already given notice of its intent to appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, and the North Little Rock board was expected to vote on the matter late last week.

‘A Crisis Stage’

Stating that education in the metropolitan area had reached “a crisis stage,” Judge Woods ordered the merger of the three districts last April at the request of the city school board. (See Education Week, April 25, 1984.)

The federal judge ruled that the two suburban school boards and the state of Arkansas, 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 public schools. The case is Little Rock School District v. Pulaski County Special School District No. 1, et al.

Plan’s Provisions

The consolidation plan, which Little Rock school officials say could be put into effect as early as next fall, would divide the area covered by the three existing districts into six new subdistricts. The racial composition of the student populations in the subdistricts would reflect, within 25 percentage points, the racial composition of the consolidated district as a whole--which is approximately 60 percent white and 40 percent black, said Julia McGehee, a spokesman for the city school district. The new district would enroll approximately 56,000 students.

Students would be assigned to attendance zones within the subdistricts by means of a computerized “geocoding” process developed by the Little Rock board’s expert witness in the case, Robert A. Dentler, a sociologist from the University of Massachusetts at Boston. In his order, Judge Woods noted that student transportation, “one of the more emotional issues of this consolidation, must be accomplished with a view toward minimizing the number of students that must be bused.”

Interim Board

Judge Woods also said he would appoint a nine-member interim school board that would develop a budget for the newly consolidated district, select an interim superintendent, and report to the court on the progress of the plan’s implementation. Ms. McGehee said the judge is expected to order that elections for a regular school board take place about 18 months after the consolidation order is put into effect.

According to Ms. McGehee, the plan also calls for:

The establishment of magnet3schools in predominantly black neighborhoods to attract white students from other parts of the district into the areas.

The pooling and desegregation of teaching and administrative staffs from the three school districts.

The eventual imposition of a uniform school-tax rate throughout the consolidated district. Currently, the Little Rock and Pulaski County districts have a 61-mill tax rate and the North Little Rock district has a 60-mill rate.

Assumption of the costs of consolidation, estimated at $8 million, by the state board of education, which was also named as a defendant in the case.

Norfolk Case

Lawyers representing a group of black parents in Norfolk recently asked a federal appeals court to overturn a district judge’s July order allowing the city school board to scale back its 13-year-old school-desegregation plan.

In papers filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit last month, the naacp Legal Defense Fund, which represents the black parents in Riddick v. School Board of the City of Norfolk, charged that the school board has failed to prove “that sins committed upon black parents are not being visited upon their children and [that it] will not miseducate another generation of blacks.”

On July 9, U.S. District John A. MacKenzie approved a plan offered by the Norfolk board that would halt the busing of students in grades K through 6. The plan would increase from 7 to 12 the number of elementary schools in the district with a black enrollment of over 70 percent.

Judge MacKenzie ruled that the school board could justifiably alter its desegregation plan because the district had been declared fully desegregated in 1975 and because it had legitimate concerns regarding the effects of busing on “white flight” from the district.

Racial Composition’s Shift

According to papers filed with the court, when busing began in 1971, the district enrolled 56,830 students, of whom 57 percent were white and 43 percent were black. By 1983, total enrollment in the district had dropped to 35,500 and the racial composition had shifted to 42 percent white and 58 percent black.

According to the school board’s lawyer in the case, Jack E. Greer, the board filed its rebuttal to the black parents’ charges last week. The board, he said, contends that the plan is constitutionally sound and represents “a reasonable attempt to maintain a desegregated school system.”

The board, Mr. Greer said, has voluntarily agreed not to implement the new plan until appeals in the case are exhausted. The Fourth Circuit Court, he added, has agreed to expedite its hearing of the case and is expected to schedule it for oral argument in January.


Constance E. Clayton, Philadelphia’s superintendent of schools, has declared a preliminary victory in the battle to desegregate schools in the nation’s fifth-largest district.

In a preview of her first annual re-port on the three-year voluntary-desegregation plan, Ms. Clayton told school-board members that 21 of the 50 schools targeted in the plan have been desegregated in its first year. The report was sent to the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission--the agency responsible for overseeing school desegregation in the state--early this week.

The commission said it would have no comment on the report until it has reviewed the document.

The commission had initially opposed the voluntary-desegregation plan. In 1980, the agency asked the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court to impose a mandatory desegregation plan, saying that the district’s 1976 voluntary plan had failed to desegregate schools adequately.

The 1976 plan allowed students to transfer to any of the district’s 260 schools where they would improve the racial balance, and it relied on magnet schools to attract white students.

But Ms. Clayton, who was appointed to the superintendency in 1982, convinced the commission6that her voluntary plan could further desegregation. She pointed out that her plan would target specific schools and list exactly how many white students and how many minority students were needed to desegregate each.

Increased Voluntary Transfers

According to Ms. Clayton, voluntary transfers for desegregation have increased by 30 percent in the plan’s first year, from about 4,000 last year to 5,400 this year. As a result, she said, 21 of the schools in the plan, and two others that were not targeted in the plan, have become desegregated.

But she also noted that six schools that were desegregated before the plan went into effect have slipped back into segregated status.

In the district, which is 25.4 percent white and 74.6 percent minority, a school is considered desegregated if its student population is between 25 and 60 percent white.

According to Ms. Clayton, 71 schools now meet that definition, compared with 54 schools last year. And 27.4 percent of the district’s stu-dents now attend desegregated schools, compared with 18.3 percent last year, the superintendent said.


As expected, a federal district judge last week officially approved an out-of-court settlement ending a 28-year-old desegregation suit against the Houston Independent School District.

The agreement approved by U.S. District Judge John V. Singleton calls for the creation of a seven-member monitoring committee to measure student achievement in the district during the next five years. A provision in the plan requires the school district to take steps toward having its students score at or above national norms on a variety of standardized tests.

The plan also includes a change in attendance formulas to allow more black and Hispanic students to attend magnet schools and retains provisions from previous court orders in Ross v. Houston Independent School District regarding faculty assignments.

Correspondent Patricia Ford in Philadelphia contributed to this report.

A version of this article appeared in the December 05, 1984 edition of Education Week as U.S. Judge Approves a Plan for Merger of 3 Little Rock Districts