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LR School District declared 'unitary'

Federal judge frees district from deseg supervision.

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Federal Judge Bill Wilson ended the Little Rock School District's long entanglement with desegregation litigation Friday with a 49-page order that declared the district unitary. The district is now free to operate how it sees fit, without court supervision and without the involvement of attorney John Walker and the Joshua Intervenors, the class of black students he's represented for decades. Little Rock School Board members had disagreed among themselves whether the district should be declared unitary, and even asked Wilson to delay the January hearing that led to today's ruling -- a request he denied.

The sole remaining issue in the long-running deseg suit was whether the district had "deeply embedded" a system for evaluating various programs' effect on the achievement of black students. Wilson's ruling is a victory for Superintendent Roy Brooks, who tried to fire the district employee in charge of the evaluation system, Karen DeJarnette, who stated publicly -- and testified in court -- that the district hadn't met the "deeply embedded" standard.

Judge Wilson’s ruling declaring the Little Rock School District unitary in all aspects of the desegregation lawsuit was unambiguous — “This means that LRSD is no longer under any supervision and monitoring obligations from me, ODM, or Joshua. LRSD’s board can now operate the district as it sees fit” — but the full extent of the fallout remains to be seen. The ruling will have political effects on the Little Rock School Board and within the LRSD administration, and it could also open the door for the state to try to put an end to the millions of dollars it provides annually to help fund the district’s magnet schools and minority-to-majority student transfers.

LRSD’s attorney, Chris Heller, said the state’s agreement with Pulaski County’s three school districts restricts it from seeking any change in the funding amounts before 2008, but Jacksonville legislator Will Bond filed a bill this afternoon that would start the process of ending the funding within seven years. The state’s total yearly deseg obligation is $58 million, according to Bond’s bill. Little Rock’s share is around $27 million.

In his ruling, Wilson threw out the requirement that had been at the core of the disagreement within the LRSD administration: that the district “deeply embed” a system of assessing academic programs. The standard had been criticized in an appeals court ruling issued last summer as being too vague and subjective, and Wilson wrote in today’s ruling that upon “mature reflection,” he agreed. The standard should have been “good faith,” he said. But he went on to say that in any event, based on the testimony presented in the January hearings, it would have been “hard” to rule that the district hadn’t met the “deeply embedded” standard.

Wilson also handed a victory to Superintendent Roy Brooks, who had clashed with Karen DeJarnette, the head of the department that oversees the district’s program evaluations. DeJarnette testified that the district fell short of the “deeply embedded” standard, and that Brooks and other district officials had tried to keep information about those shortcomings from the court. Wilson said he found DeJarnette’s testimony to lack objectivity, and that the shortcomings she cited weren’t in aspects of the evaluation system that were required by the court.

Brooks’ comment on that aspect of the ruling: “I think this is victory for this community, for these kids — that we are honorable people, and I have always been a person that valued my integrity and my honor.”

Both Brooks and board member Baker Kurrus said they hoped all sides could work together going forward.

“I don’t feel any kind of relief or joy or anything,” Kurrus said. “The hard work remains — it always has. Getting in or getting out of court really doesn’t change the fact that we have students with great need.”

Board President Katherine Mitchell wasn’t so hopeful, and said she didn’t agree with Wilson’s ruling.
”It was quite obvious in the court proceedings that evidence of embedding the programs did not exist in the manner that it should, in my opinion, that would release the district from the court,” she said. “But I’m not the judge. … However, the judge changed his focus from deeply embedded to showing good faith. In his opinion the district is showing good faith.”

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