by Max Brantley
Today the Little Rock School Board meets.
Buckets of gasoline are being prepared to toss on the smoldering school district.
1) Civil rights lawyer John Walker has written a letter to the district's legal counsel, Chris Heller, saying he will ask the School Board tonight to approve settlements or mediation of several pending cases against the district, including employment disputes and his idea to "settle" his appeal of the federal district court ruling in the long-running desegregation case. The cases include former Sen. Bill Walker's lawsuit against Central High principal Nancy Rousseau over alleged discrimination against his daughter in cheerleader selection. John Walker indicates the board majority favors settlement of all pending litigation.
Walker lost the final issue in the deseg case at the district level. Absent a demonstration that he might prevail at the court of appeals level, a settlement seems premature, at best. Most of what he asks -- particularly to assure evaluation of how programs are working in closing the achievement gap between black and what students -- should be the duty of the school district and done voluntarily. It would not require a continuing relationship with Walker as monitor. The School Board should monitor itself, along with the continuing monitoring by the Office of Desegregation Monitoring.
Acting tonight on the other cases would also seem hasty, without some time for public consideration and input. What the Friday Firm says about the wisdom of settling also seems worthy of taking into account.
I'm particularly skeptical about Walker's notion to mediate the lawsuits privately, with a committee of four members of the School Board. The state law simply doesn't provide for the board to meet privately with plaintiffs' counsel in lawsuits.
The new board majority's independence and thoughtfulness will be tested before TV cameras tonight. I hope it moves carefully. Instant ratification of all that Walker asks -- not heretofore known to the public -- will be a clear enough signal of who's running the school district.
2) And then there's a matter not yet public. I know the prevailing view in certain quarters of the white business community is that Superintendent Roy Brooks has been a management wizard. But you'll see from these documents that the district, despite one extension, has not been able to complete the statutorily required audit for the school year ending last June 30. It will receive no further extensions from the state Education Department. A year is enough time. This failure could, in theory at least, lead to a declaration that the district is in fiscal distress and in need of state supervision. Nobody wants this. (Well, maybe some would like it as a means of taking control of the district out of the hands of the School Board.) There are some behind-the-scenes effort to cobble together an audit before the time runs out Monday.
It's outrageous that the Brooks administration is trying to blame the failure to do minimal bookeeping on his employment difficulties. And he has the gall to talk about Board president Katherine Mitchell's supposed law-breaking two years ago in receiving a small sum of state money under a contract he approved. Adios, Roy. Don't let the doorknob hit you.
3) Oh and there's the matter of an interim superintendent to serve after Brooks' departure, no later than the end of August. There's growing sentiment that he should be invited to stay home for the balance of his time. His presence is a continuing irritant and non-productive. But is the deal done on this issue already? The names of several familiar female educators are going around as potential choices. Again, this is a late addition to the board agenda.
It will be a long meeting. And not likely pleasant. We could hope otherwise.