by Max Brantley
Federal Judge Price Marshall heard a wide range of arguments on the Pulaski school desegregation case today as he takes over from Judge Brian Miller, who recused recently on account of apparent unhappiness with the state of Arkansas's takeover of his hometown Helena-West Helena School District.
Key issues: Conflict of interest and money. No decisions today. Read on for the specifics.
* CONFLICT OF INTEREST I: The judge asked for formal responses by July 12 on whether parties think HE should recuse from the case. He was a law clerk to Appeals Court Judge Richard Arnold from 1989-91 during a time when Arnold issued some key rulings in the school case. Marshall said he had not participated in the work and didn't recall even participating in office discussions of the case, but said he was open to reconsidering his initial feeling that he could remain on the case.
* CONFLICT OF INTEREST II: The judge questioned Scott Richardson of the attorney general's office closely on whether Richardson's office had a conflict and should avail itself of a state statute allowing a special counsel now that the state has taken over the Pulaski County Special School District. The state has opposed continuing desegregation funding to the district. Now it runs the district, which wanted to continue the money, through a superintendent appointed by the state education director. Richardson struggled to explain how the district's long-time attorney, Sam Jones, could operate independently. As it stands, he's his own boss, generally following past guidance from a school board and superintendent that have been ejected from their offices by the state. Education Director Tom Kimbrell is now the effective school board. Chris Heller, attorney for the Little Rock district, said the situation perhaps could be cured by Kimbrell giving total independence, as the law allows, to the new superintendent, Jerry Guess, or to a committee. John Walker, attorney for black children, said the state's takeover of the district was a "farce." He said the state was too conflicted by its obligations under the decree ending the desegregation lawsuit to bring clean hands to operation of the district. He said the removal of a black superintendent and a number of black board members, along with school construction decisions that favored white neighborhoods over poor black neighborhoods, amounted to further state civil rights violations.
* MONEY: The state argued for the judge to rule now on a pending question raised by Judge Miller of whether money for the Majority-to-Minority Transfer Program should stop. The school districts said they believed an 8th Circuit order staying Miller's cutoff of other desegregation funding covered all financial matters, including the transfer program. That appeal is heading to the appeals court in the fall. North Little Rock's attorney Steve Jones responded to the state's continued argument that the districts just want to stay in the court for money and have no incentive to desegregate. Little Rock is unitary, he noted. And he said the state is driven by money, too. He said the transfer programs and magnet schools work and work well to promote desegregation by giving districts an incentive to let students (and state money that supports them) leave for other districts. He noted that the funding plan to encourage interdistrict transfers was devised by the 8th Circuit itself after it overturned Judge Henry Woods' consolidation order. The school districts argue that the magnet school program was meant to be a permanent incentive program and not subject to termination when districts had otherwise met desegregation goals. Nearly 2,000 students swap districts in the programs. Does the state really argue that it should be relieved of that obligation and that the additional costs for transportation and enhanced programs should be dumped on local districts?
The judge also heard discussion on whether he should act on the Little Rock petition that the state has violated the settlement in creation of open enrollment charter schools in Pulaski County and on whether the Pulaski construction program should be allowed to proceed. He said he'd be prepared to start moving expeditiously once he decided whether to remain on the case. He took the arguments today, he said, so as to begin building a record, either for him or another judge.