The Arkansas Supreme Court is considering whether the state can claim sovereign immunity after the Arkansas Board of Education’s January takeover of the Little Rock School District.
In March, the Supreme Court issued a stay in a Circuit Court case after Pulaski County Judge Wendell Griffen ruled against the state's claim that it has sovereign immunity.
Counsel representing former LRSD school board member Dianne Curry and the Arkansas Department of Education presented oral arguments Thursday. Attorney for the plaintiff, Marion Humphrey, told justices the board’s decision was arbitrary and unconstitutional. He said that creates a legal basis to deny the state immunity.
“The legislature enacted a law that says they can waive the state law and that is up to judicial review and it's certainly an exception to sovereign immunity and that's what we're arguing," Hicks said. "The application of even that law, 6-15-430, has been applied arbitrarily and capriciously.”
The state board voted to take over the LRSD in January because six of its schools were in academic distress.
Lori Freno, an attorney for the Arkansas Department of Education, said the board acted within the bounds of the law and is protected from being sued because it had a reasonable basis for its decision.
“Thousands of students are in these six schools that are in academic distress. Three...of the five high schools are in academic distress," Freno said.
"Yes, the [school] board came up with a plan. Parts of it the department agreed with, parts of it the department disagreed with. This was all presented to the [state] board and the board made their determination.”
Freno argued the law sets a high standard for denying sovereign immunity, only in the case of "capricious" or baseless decisions.
On Wednesday, Little Rock-based attorney and civil rights advocate John Walker filed a federal suit against the Arkansas Department of Education for the takeover.
He spoke to reporters Thursday outside the state Supreme Court building after listening to oral arguments. His suit argues inequities in the district violate the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.
“It's very clear that the actions of at least two board members were racially motivated. We've alleged that in the complaint. The purpose was to takeover the school district and prioritize the education of white children who happen to be well to do,” said Walker.
Department of Education head Johnny Key issued a statement Thursday saying his office is reviewing the filing and is not prepared to comment.
* A previous version of this story attributed a quote from attorney Marion Humphrey to co-counsel Rickey Hicks.