LITTLE ROCK — John Walker, the attorney representing black plaintiffs in the long-running Pulaski County school desegregation case, did not want to use the word "historic" to describe a federal judge’s preliminary approval of a proposed settlement to end more than two decades of litigation.
Attorney General Dustin McDaniel did not want to use the word "success" to describe results of the $1.2 billion the state has paid the three Little Rock-area school districts since 1989 to bolster desegregation programs.
McDaniel said he was happy with the settlement agreement and glad state payments of nearly $70 annually to the three Little Rock-area school districts are close to an end.
On Friday, U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall tentatively endorsed the proposed settlement, which would end state desegregation payments in three years.
"I wouldn’t … describe it as a success," the attorney general said in response to a legislators’ question about the effect state money had on the Pulaski County schools. "What I would say is, for those who resent the money (being spent) and would like to say that it was all bad, I don’t think that’s fair. I think that a lot of good has come from it."
McDaniel continued, "For those who say there could have been greater accountability and it could have been spent differently and more efficiently, I’d say that that’s true of any large government expenditure. So, what I’m saying is, I think we have met our legal obligations and that we have a reached a point … where it is time for it to end."
The public will have an opportunity to comment on the settlement between Thanksgiving and Christmas and a fairness hearing to finalize the agreement is set for Jan. 13-14.
The settlement would end 24 years of litigation in a case that had its origins in the 1957 Central High School integration crisis. In 1989, the state, a party in the current lawsuit filed in the mid-1980s, agreed to make payments to the districts in Pulaski County to aide desegregation programs.
To date, the state has spent $1.2 billion on desegregation funding in the three districts, according to McDaniel.
The new pact negotiated by McDaniel would end state payments to the Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski School Districts after the 2017-2018 school year. The districts would get another year of payments in 2018-2019 to be used exclusively for school buildings.
The proposal also would clear the way for creation of a new school district in Jacksonville.
All parties in the case signed off on the settlement. However, though the case is winding down, McDaniel, Walker and others acknowledged that vestiges of a history of segregation remain.
Asked outside U.S. District Court on Friday if the he would call the judge’s tentative approval of the settlement historic, Walker said he would not.
"It is the same thing that we’ve been seeking for years, and we’ve said many of the same things," said Walker, a noted civil rights lawyer and state representative. "The only thing historic thing about it is that the state will no longer have to pay money after four years for trying to help those districts do what they are suppose to do."
He said wasn’t especially fond of the settlement agreement but agreed to it because it was important for everyone to have some specificity "and for the children who are the intended beneficiaries of this action to have some real benefits."
In 2011, then presiding U.S. District Judge Brian Miller ruled that the state could end the bulk of its annual payments to the district. Allowing the state to continue the payments was actually delaying desegregation, Miller said, asserted that the districts had learned to use the money without significantly improving conditions.
A federal appeals court later vacated Miller’s order.
Walker said segregation still exists and school, facilities in the more affluent areas are still better than those in the lower-income neighborhoods.
Earlier this month, Walker asserted during a legislative committee meeting that the supposed beneficiaries of the case, primarily black children whose educational interests were not being met, still do not have the same educational opportunities and outcomes as white children.
Sherrie Mays, a teacher at Hall High School in Little Rock and a member of the Subcommittee on Litigation and Desegregation Oversight, questioned during a recent meeting whether the Little Rock School District remains largely desegregated, as a federal judge declared in 2007.
"What is happening in the schools now, I don’t see you can say that Little Rock is even close to be unitary," she told McDaniel. "I’m out there and I’m in the schools and I see that. Hall is almost 90 percent African-American, McClellan same thing. J.A. Fair same thing.
"I don’t know how the problem can be fixed, but I know if we go in with this type of settlement right now, we might end it this year, but guarantee you it won’t be two years before we’re back in court. … I just hate to see us come back to this point again."
In response, McDaniel said he believes "the goals of the 1989 settlement have nothing to do with some future thing that may or may not ever happen. But, this settlement, these payments, this litigation, is years past ending."
Several lawmakers have questioned whether the money the state has paid actually worked in desegregating the schools.
Sen. Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, questioned whether the three school districts would end up back in court in a few years because of similar problems.
McDaniel said the point was not how the state money was spent over the years or whether giving the Little Rock district an extra $37 million over its $320 million annual operating budget was the right thing to do.
"The point should be that we should be the last of the bunch to do this," he said.
McDaniel noted that the Little Rock and North Little Rock districts have relatively new superintendents and the Pulaski County Special district, what was taken over by the state because of fiscal distress in 2011, has a state-appointed superintendent.
"They all get it and their boards get it, that as the termination of this money comes there has to be real accountability and real forward thinking in how to move beyond and meet all their responsibilities just like other school districts," he said.
Asked what would prevent school districts from falling out of unitary compliance, McDaniel said "at this point, I don’t believe that compliance and payments are connected anyway."
"We know that they don’t necessarily spend the payments now on desegregation related purposes anyway and I think that the incentive for all of the districts not to fall out of compliance is decades of painful and expensive litigation," he said. "I would think that all school districts, whether you are Pulaski County, or anywhere else, would take a look at this example and want to stay out of this particular legal circumstance.
"We are all very concerned about policies and trends that could lead to resegregating any given school district or area. There are lessons that have to be learned and these lessons are painful."
Walker said the Joshua intervenors would be watching and if the school district does slip back into segregated schools, another lawsuit should be expected.