by Max Brantley
It looks like mediation of the Little Rock school desegregation case is off, maybe for good. John Martin, settlement director for the 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, has told lawyers in the case he had decided to cancel Thursday's scheduled session.
According to Chris Heller, the School Board's attorney, a brief letter from Martin to attorneys said "upon rflection of the lengthy litigation and current circumstances" he had decided to cancel the mediation sessions. He surged the parties to "explore other options as they see fit."
I haven't been able to reach Martin, but a court official said Martin had told him he cancelled after the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette had inquired whether mediation sessions would be open to the public.
John Walker, who's been promoting mediation as a way of resolving his appeal of the finding that the district had achieved unitary, or desegregated, status, had originally proposed a private mediation involving members of the school board. State law wouldn't allow such private sessions and there's some question whether federal law would allow private mediation involving public officials.
A larger issue than the privacy of the negotiations may simply have been Martin's recognition of the curious nature of the mediation. As one observer put it: "It's John Walker negotiating with John Walker." Walker wants an agreement on continued monitoring of educational process. A majority of the School Board, often responsive to Walker's wishes, has ordered the mediation, presumably to produce an outcome somewhat in line with what he recommends. Heller had recommended against a settlement of a case that the district has won and said the district had ample ways to make commitments on equity without entering a contractual relationship with Walker. He said he was prepared to reiterate that argument at Thursday night's School Board meeting.
There's nothing to stop the School Board, presumably, from unliterally adopting what Walker asks. We could hope that the Board would wait until after the Sept. 18 school board election to make such a momentous decision. But this School Board majority would probably respond that the gang in charge in 2006 probably should have waited until after the election for the vote on the expensive decision to extend the now-departing Superintendent Roy Brooks' contract.
And so it goes.