LITTLE ROCK — A federal judge Tuesday set a Friday hearing with the parties in the Pulaski County school case to discuss a proposed settlement to end more than two decades of state payments to bolster desegregation efforts in Little Rock-area schools.
A day after the Little Rock School Board and the lawyer representing black plaintiffs in the Little Rock School District signed on to the pact, Attorney General Dustin McDaniel presented the proposal to U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall.
The judge scheduled a hearing for Friday morning and said he could give preliminary approval at that time. If not, all parties would have to appear in court in the afternoon for a pre-trial hearing in the case. A Dec. 9 trial is set on the state’s motion to immediately end payments to the district, but Marshall told the parties the trial will probably be moved to February or March.
McDaniel said Tuesday he believed Marshall would approve the settlement, but he said if not, the state was prepared to present its case for immediately ending the payments.
The North Little Rock and Pulaski County Special districts endorsed the agreement last week, as did the Legislative Council.
At a news conference his office Tuesday morning, McDaniel said getting all parties to agree to the settlement is "an historic day in Arkansas and for the education of our children." He said the agreement is "in the best interests of the taxpayers, the districts and most importantly the children in these school districts."
The Little Rock School Board voted Monday night to go forward with an agreement, with or without the endorsement of the lawyer representing black parents in the school desegregation case that had its origins in the 1957 Central High integration crisis.
The state has paid the school districts in Pulaski County more than $1.1 billion since 1989 to bolster desegregation programs, according to McDaniel.
The pact he negotiated would end state desegregation payments of nearly $70 million annually to the Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County Special districts after the 2017-18 school year and clear the way for creation of a new school district in Jacksonville. The districts would get another year of payments in 2018-19 to be used exclusively for school buildings.
The agreement includes stipulations that attorneys for the three school districts will receive $250,000 from the state. Any more will be paid by the individual districts It also asks the federal judge to approve $500,000 in fees for attorneys for the Joshua intervenors and $75,000 for other attorneys in the case.
The resolution approved by the Little Rock board Monday night committed the district to conducting a facilities study to determine the top priorities for school improvements, and to put schools in southwest Little Rock high on the list — stipulations that satisfied the lawyer for plaintiffs, Rep. John Walker, D-Little Rock, who had not agreed to the proposal.
Walker said after Tuesday’s court hearing he fully expects the judge to give preliminary approval to the proposed settlement and for it to approved in full after a "fairness hearing" in January. That hearing would be held after the public has had time to review the proposal and give comments.
"I don’t anticipate any barriers to its conclusion," Walker said.
He said he decided to join the settlement after the Little Rock district l District agreed to use state money it receives in the 2018-2019 school year to improve school facilities in the southwest corner of the district, where most of the city’s poor and minority students attend school — students whose interests he said "have been long neglected" by the district.
"They agreed to emphasize that and they are in a position where they must do that now," he said. "If they don’t, then we file a new lawsuit against the Little Rock School District."
Walker told reporters he doubted the school district would honor its commitment.
"I can only say that because it’s a frustrating thing for this matter having lasted so long and because Little Rock was plaintiff in the case seeking to bring about the very relief that I’m seeking — they are in very hypocritical position," he said.
During his morning news conference, McDaniel said the proposed agreement allows for residents in Jacksonville, where schools are now in the Pulaski County Special School District, to continue with plans to create an independent school district.
However, the proposal prohibits residents in Maumelle or Sherwood to pursue independent districts until all of the state’s financial obligations are met in the proposal, and until the Pulaski County district is declared unitary — largely desegregated — and is no longer under state supervision.
The state took over the district in 2011 after it was designated to be in fiscal distress.