A federal judge has approved a settlement phasing out payments from the state to three Pulaski County school districts in the state's long-running desegregation lawsuit. Federal Judge D. Price Marshall said the settlement to the “exceedingly complex” case was “fair, adequate and reasonable” and noted how few objections there were in the case.
After the ruling, Attorney General Dustin McDaniel called the settlement “historic.”
“Good people have worked very, very hard to bring about an end to this litigation. And it is time, as I told the judge and as he said at the end of the hearing to 'put this case in the books' and move on to being partners in education rather than adversaries in court. I could not be more proud of the outcome today,” McDaniel said.
The state of Arkansas has been making payments of around 70 million dollars a year to the Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County Special School districts since the original settlement in 1989. In court testimony Monday it was suggested that there had never been any clear time line for the state to cease payments and so litigation has extended for over 20 years since the original settlement. The Little Rock School District first sued the state and the surrounding districts in the early 1980's for failure to contribute to an environment of integrated education for its students.
The settlement requires the state to make annual payments of around 65.8 million dollars to the Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County Special School Districts for four more years. One year's worth of payments must be directed to facilities improvement. The settlement also phases out Magnet and Majority to Minority interdistrict transfer programs.
The Pulaski County Special School District must continue efforts to achieve unitary status under the settlement and Jacksonville now has the option of carving out its own school district from the PCSSD. PCSSD Superintendent Jerry Guess, who must oversee those efforts, said he was pleased with the ruling.
“The Jacksonville separation we think will actually be good for PCSSD, will actually promote a stable district operation. Another detachment at this time I think would threaten the fiscal viability of the district. So I think the judge was wise and prudent in his decision,” Guess said.
City leaders and educators from Sherwood were at the hearing and objected to Section E of the settlement. It states that no other school district besides Jacksonville can be carved out of the PCSSD before the PCSSD is declared unitary, or free of the effects of past segregation.
Attorney and State Representative John Walker, who represents black students and parents (known as the Joshua Intervenors) from the three districts, expressed his lukewarm response after the hearing ended. He indicated that it was time for the lawsuit to end, but further work to integrate schools would have to be accomplished. The direction of school funding is still at issue, he said.
“My concern has always been whether or not the funds flow to the benefit of the minority children, and my answer is still the same: those funds have not flowed to their benefit',” Walker said. “The situation is pretty much the same as it was many years ago when we began. I think that at least at this point the districts will all have to focus on educating children on the basis of their resources and they'll do so without any insistence from the federal court.”
McDaniel said that despite some objections, the settlement did all it could to fair to all parties.
“If you think about the hundreds of thousands of people who were impacted in one way or another—and even those who voiced...concerns said they still supported the settlement is reflective of just how hard we worked, that it is a fair and reasonable settlement that was hard-negotiated and nobody got everything they wanted but everyone acknowledged that it was fair and rightfully created,” McDaniel said.
The state's payments to the three districts are set to end at the conclusion of the 2017-18 school year.