Here's the long and short of an article in today's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette about ongoing talks to settle the final remaining piece of the decades-old Pulaski County desegregation case — declaring the Pulaski County Special School District unitary, or desegregated to the extent required by law.
It is going to cost the state MILLIONS to finish the job.
It will require separation of Jacksonville from the county district.
I won't attempt to explain the intricacies of school finance and construction law, but Pulaski is saddled with some horribly outmoded school facilities. It can't currently qualify, based on property wealth, for sufficient state money to fix them all. If Jacksonville separates, it will qualify for oodles of state aid. The loss of the property wealth won't qualify the remnant Pulaski district for more money (I stated this incorrectly previously), but to resolve the situation the state almost certainly would be expected to contribute a signifcant sum to righting the construction disparities that exist.
The real story is how the county got in this fix. It spent jillions on Cadillac-quality new schools in majority white neighborhoods — particularly Maumelle, with middle and high schools — while generally ignoring the needs of poorer neighborhoods with bigger percentages of minority students. Mills High School is 50 years old, surrounded by minority neighborhoods and increasingly decrepit, while Maumelle got a $65 million high school and Sylvan Hills got a $35 million middle school.
The state had some duty to oversee this, as the constitutionally mandated provider of equal and adequate education, but never did. Just as it had some duty to take into account formation of majority-white charter schools in majority-white neighborhoods that siphoned students away from majority black public school districts in the county. The state also was blind, deaf and mute on these developments.
Now Arkansas will pay still more to extricate itself at last from the desegregation case. The intervenors for black children and families seem willing to talk. It's the right thing to do, by the way.
All it will take is quite a few million dollars in school construction aid, for both the Pulaski and new Jacksonville school districts (upper level chools for Jacksonville won't be cheap). Don't blame this on John Walker, the attorney for black families, by the way. He's been complaining about disparate Pulaski spending for years along with other failures by Pulaski to meet clear court rulings in the desegregation case. Nobody in a position to do anything about it chose to pay attention. With the state now managing the county district, and interim superintendent Jerry Guess working mightily to regain stability, there really might be a light at the end of this long court tunnel.
After calling around, I think it's too early to say what the price tag could be. Jacksonville needs a new high school, but it might convert the North Pulaski High School into a middle school. It will need refurbished elementary schools at least. We have a $65 million price tag for the last high school. Pulaski needs a lot of money, with no fixed price tag yet.
One solution would be a cooperative settlement proposal: The state would promise a fixed amount of construction aid, contingent on district voters approving a millage increase to shoulder part of the cost. Does leadership exist to persuade this legislature that this is fair and deserved given the state's continuing failure to live up to the dictates of federal court rulings? That's might be the toughest question.