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Full steam ahead on WLR school

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Quote of the Week:

"I think he could be the commander in chief."

— Republican U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas last Friday after meeting with Donald Trump, whom Cotton declared to be a "more serious leader" than Hillary Clinton on foreign policy matters. Meanwhile, Trump, in a weekend interview with the New York Times, said the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is "obsolete" and he would not rule out the possibility of using nuclear weapons against ISIS.

Full steam ahead on WLR school

The Little Rock School District can proceed with plans to open a new middle school in West Little Rock, a federal judge ruled last week. U.S. District Judge Price Marshall denied a request for an injunction from a group of plaintiffs led by veteran civil rights attorney Rep. John Walker (D-Little Rock). Walker argued that by adding a new campus in a mostly white and affluent area of town, the LRSD was effectively declaring that project a higher priority than facilities needs in majority-black neighborhoods. The plans for the new school therefore indicated ongoing racial bias in the district, Walker said, and should be halted.

After a two-day hearing, Marshall sided with LRSD Superintendent Baker Kurrus, noting that the LRSD expects the new middle school to be 40 percent white, 40 percent black and 20 percent other races. Marshall said he was hopeful Kurrus' leadership could lead to "a new birth" for the district. Yet to be resolved are two other issues raised by the plaintiffs: a request for an injunction to stop the expansion of charter schools in the city, and a request for a reversal of the state's takeover of the LRSD in January 2015.

The unworthy poor

A memo that was circulated last week revealed that Gov. Hutchinson's administration has expanded a program that screens welfare beneficiaries for drug use. A 2015 state law authorized a pilot program in certain counties to screen recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and drug test those who indicate they've used illegal substances; the Hutchinson administration has instead decided on a statewide rollout for all 3,000 or so TANF beneficiaries in Arkansas. If the record from other states is any indication, the program will be all but useless: A similar law in Mississippi referred about 38 TANF applicants for drug testing, out of 3,656 screened. Of those 38, two tested positive.

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Maggio gets the maximum

Last week, disgraced Conway Circuit Judge Mike Maggio was sentenced to 10 years in prison for his acceptance of a bribe. In 2013, Maggio reduced the damages a jury awarded the family of a woman who died in a nursing home due to neglect, from $5.2 million to $1 million. As Maggio later admitted in a plea deal with federal prosecutors, he also accepted tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Michael Morton, the owner of the nursing home in question, to help fund his race for the state Court of Appeals. (Morton has not been charged with a crime, as of yet.)

At Maggio's sentencing last Thursday, U.S. District Judge Brian Miller departed from sentencing guidelines to give the former state judge the maximum allowable prison time under law, 120 months. "I put drug dealers in prison for five, 10, 20 years for standing on a corner selling crack cocaine," Miller said from the bench. "What's worse: A drug dealer on the corner or a dirty judge? A dirty judge is far more harmful to society than a dope dealer." Maggio's lawyer said he expects to appeal.

Ethics with teeth

Little Rock lawyer David Couch submitted to the state attorney general's office a proposed constitutional amendment to strengthen state laws on campaign finance and lobbying, something desperately needed in Arkansas. Among other things, the measure would end corporate contributions to political action committees (PACs), stop lobbyist gifts and freebies for elected officials, enhance penalties for ethics violations, and shine light on "dark money" spent by independent groups to buy "educational" ads during election season (think the vast sums spent on the state Supreme Court races last month by secretive out-of-state organizations). Still, the amendment must clear a number of hurdles before appearing before voters in November.

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