U.S. District Judge Price Marshal
l said that he believes the proposed settlement to the long desegregation case involving three Central Arkansas school districts is sound, but won't approve it until after he conducts a fairness hearing in January to consider public comment on the settlement.
Leslie Peacock was in court this morning and will have more directly.
After a two-hour hearing this morning, Judge Marshall granted preliminary approval to the settlement worked out between the state, school districts in Pulaski County and intervenors that will release the state from funding obligations after four years. Marshall commended counsel for the districts and the state for their work in a case that he said was "so close to the public's heart." His ruling does end the long-running case, but, he said, "I'm hopeful this is the beginning of the end."
Afterward, John Walker, the attorney for the Joshua Intervenors, representing the class of African American students, said the money flowing to the districts for desegregation purposes had ceased to advance desegregation and it was time to bring the case to an end. "The children haven't been getting the money," Walker said, adding it was time the districts focused on them.
To agree to the settlement, Walker won a promise from the Little Rock School District to focus the fourth-year bricks and mortar support the state will provide the LRSD ($37.3 million) on its facilities in the southwest part of the district and has worked out a tentative transitional agreement with the PCSSD, which has not yet been declared unitary, that says the intervenors aren't objecting to the global settlement because the Pulaski district has committed to addressing the areas in which it is still out of compliance with the Plan 2000 desegregation order.
The judge set a hearing Jan. 13-14 to hear any objections raised by the public to the settlement. Walker said, and assistant attorney general Scott Richardson agreed, that the judge could limit the group of those who can object to those directly affected rather than the public as a whole, and they also agreed that objections from Sherwood and Maumelle to the settlement's OK of Jacksonville's withdrawal from the district should not be heard. Marshall, however, said he was not "prepared to shut the courtroom door" just yet.
Objections to the settlement are due by Dec. 23. The districts agreed to publicize them on websites, in advertising, on public access channels and on notices provided to students, though Marshall noted that many things sent home in backpacks aren't seen until the end of the year when the backpack is cleaned out. Marshall directed that notice to the settlement information provided the public be short and sweet and understandable to any middle schooler, with information on how to find more specifics. Comments are to be made in writing to the clerk of the court.
Prior to his ruling, Marshall went through the settlement agreement
virtually paragraph by paragraph with the attorneys for the districts and Walker to make sure there were no remaining items of contention. The decision to let Jacksonville detach from the PCSSD, should voters agree to do so, was discussed in some detail. Jacksonville's creation of its own district would help the PCSSD achieve unitary status and make available state money to improve school facilities that wouldn't be available otherwise. Sherwood and Maumelle, which are of a different demographic than Jacksonville (Walker estimated the racial divide at Jacksonville schools at 50-50, close to the town's demographic), would harm PCSSD's work to become unitary, Walker said.
The lawyers also told the judge that the minority to majority transfers, which are phased out under the settlement, no longer achieve the improvements in race balance that they once did.
Before the judge entered the chambers this morning, Chris Heller, the lawyer for the LRSD since the case's beginnings some 30 years ago, joked about the 1989 settlement of the case, which parties bought fancy inkpens to celebrate. It wasn't over then, and as Marshall said, it's not quite over yet.