Late Friday, John W. Walker filed a race discrimination lawsuit on behalf of 19 plaintiffs against the Little Rock School District over practices in the maintenance and operations department. It oversees custodial services.
The lawsuit claims that the department facility is functionally segregated, with a white side housing 47 to 50 workers, a black side housing a similar number and an all-white administrative sector. It further alleges that the "white sector" is well-kept and air conditioned, in "obvious" contrast to the black sector, which is said to be poorly maintained, un-air conditioned and with hand-me-down equipment.
The suit says the history of the department is that supervisors are white. Two black foremen supervise racially identifiable work crews. Individual plaintiffs allege discriminatory personnel decisions in promotion, pay and other decisions.
The lawsuit seeks a reorganization of the department, including preferences for plaintiffs who've been passed over in previous decisions. and back pay for some. It also asks, among others, for a prohibition against allowing white clerical employees "supervising black persons outside their line of progression" and an end to single-race work crews.
Walker says the suit is over a long-festering situation, but he acknowledges it is symbolic as well. The School District is led by a black superintendent and a majority black school board. Black people should be held to the same standards of non-discrimination as white people, Walker said.
The suit also has obvious political elements.
The lawsuit alleges that Superintendent Linda Watson, who is black, has long been aware of the problem in the department as have two black board members, Micheal Daugherty and Diane Curry, who once worked in the maintenance department, then known as plant services. The lawsuit says that Curry even ran for School Board in 1999 on a promise to address disparities in the department.
Watson is now in the final year of her contract as superintendent. Curry and Daugherty were on the losing end of a 4-3 vote to extend that contract. Daugherty is in a re-election contest this year with Michael Nellums, whom Walker is backing. The lawsuit, inevitably, will be an issue in that race, which has had various prominent black figures choosing sides on whether Watson should stay or go as superintendent. The voters in the zone that will choose between Nellums and Daugherty are majority black.