Columns » Max Brantley

Blackboard jungle

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There was a lot of local school news last week, all bad.

First, federal Judge Brian Miller shocked everyone by ordering an end to most state desegregation aid to Pulaski County school districts, currently about $70 million a year.

It was an off-the-wall decision. He had said he wasn't going to take up money yet in deciding whether North Little Rock and Pulaski County had achieved desegregation goals. (He said they had not.) But he decided, without a hearing, that the money hadn't done any good and he called a halt to it.

That the desegregation effort has failed is conventional wisdom, if not wholly wise. A big testing gap still remains between black and white students (here and everywhere). The judge showed no interest, however, in whether things would have been worse without the money or in student gains that have been made over the years. He said it was time to use the stick instead of the carrot on the school districts.

The judge didn't seem to realize that school districts are children, too — 50,000 of them. The judge's ruling could mean the immediate end of magnet schools, which enroll more than 3,600 students, and of interdistrict transfer programs that serve another 1,900. (For now, the transfer program is preserved, but the judge said the districts should demonstrate why it shouldn't be stopped, too.)

The three Pulaski districts have managed to maintain biracial attendance all these years through the magnet and transfer programs — school choice to use the popular slogan. The judge would summarily end them or severely punish some other schools, despite signed teacher contracts and student assignments made for next year. Quite a stick.

Did the judge do any homework? Or was he just overcome by personal feelings? A black man, he took great offense at testimony seemingly tailored to his race. I don't blame him, but the case was about school kids, not Brian Miller.

School starts in three months. An emergency appeal has been filed. Legislators, notably some white-flight area lawmakers, are salivating to get hold of the money. They care less than Judge Miller about what happens to 5,500 children who attend successful, desegregated Pulaski schools.

Less sweeping in impact was a report issued late Friday by Pulaski Prosecutor Larry Jegley on an investigation of a mysterious video that turned up last year purporting to show Pulaski County School Board member Gwen Williams accepting $100, ostensibly for her influence on a school sidewalk project (a project that turned out to be non-existent).

Williams solicited no money, took no bribe and committed no crime, Jegley said. Through statements of participants, subpoenaed phone records and other information developed by the sheriff's office, Jegley concluded that Williams had been targeted in a concocted video sting by then-Pulaski County School Board President Tim Clark and Michael Nellums, principal of the district's Mills High School and also a Little Rock School Board member. Williams was a key vote at the time in a labor dispute in the district, a dispute in which Clark and Nellums were foes of the teachers' union. Jegley didn't attempt to identify a motive for the "juvenile" plot, which employed a friend of Nellums and a private eye. But he said it was "shameful," a "terrible distraction of law enforcement resources and of a beleaguered school district which has been struggling to improve."

Jegley nailed it. Those involved should resign from positions of authority and employment with the districts they have dishonored.

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