I was happy to hear second-hand that a Little Rock School Board retreat last weekend was viewed as a generally fruitful discussion of a number of issues, including race relations, programs for disadvantaged kids, district goals and others.
Factions exist on the board and all have been guilty of motive-questioning. With elections over, it would be good if all sides would spend some time on issues that unite them, like kids. The teachers union might try to resist criticizing every suggestion made by Superintendent Roy Brooks or members of the school board who tend to share his views. Black parents and school advocates might try to not see racism in every action by a white administrator or school board member. White parents and school advocates might try not to always presume the worst about black advocates such as civil rights lawyer John Walker. Business people should stop demonizing the union.
Walker is on my mind because he is the one constant in the Little Rock school desegregation saga. Superintendents and board members come and go, but Walker remains. Infuriating? Yes, at times. Dangerously dismissive of the peril of creating an all-black city school district? Yes. Desirous of continuing school litigation? Yes.
But Walker’s critics fail to see that he is best fought with facts, reason and law, not name-calling. Many white public school supporters, for example, are outraged that a couple of new school board members, Charles Armstrong and Dianne Curry, seem to look to Walker for guidance. That may be so, given his support for their elections. But insulting them as puppets only drives them deeper into Walker’s camp.
The other great knock is that Walker doesn’t care about school kids, he just cares about money. It’s ironic how often you hear this from rich people who also complain about school teachers’ greed even as they make many multiples of teachers’ pay for less stressful toil.
The School Board got some data on legal fees last weekend. John Walker and all the others who work for the black intervenors in the school desegregation case have been paid a total of $2.99 million over the last 25 fiscal years, out of $11 million in desegregation legal fees and $16 million in total legal fees. The Friday law firm, with five years less work, has been paid a good deal more, $3.35 million on desegregation matters alone. But even this doesn’t tell the whole story. Two-thirds of the pay to Walker and his partner came in a single payment — in the court-approved historic “settlement” of the desegregation case in 1991. In 14 of the 26 fiscal years, including the last four, Walker has received no money from the Little Rock School District. The Friday firm during the last four years has received $263,000 for desegregation work.
The fees are relatively small change. The district runs on an annual budget of more than $300 million. In the last full fiscal year, desegregation legal payments totaled $232,664 (none to Walker), or less than a tenth of 1 percent of the budget.
John Walker’s legal fees simply aren’t crippling the school district, be they his motivation or not. The best strategy is to make darn sure he doesn’t have a legitimate argument that the district has unconstitutionally harmed black children. If he does, he’ll ask for fees and he’ll get them.