LITTLE ROCK — A federal judge Monday gave final approval to a settlement that will end decades of state desegregation payments to the three school districts in Pulaski County.
U.S. District Judge Price Marshall concluded that the agreement brokered by Attorney General Dustin McDaniel is "fair, reasonable and adequate."
"I think this is a day that we can write about in the book, put a circle around and remember that we did something important," Marshall said at the end of a court hearing he set to hear objections to the historic agreement to end more than 20 years of litigation rooted in the 1957 Little Rock Central High integration crisis.
Since a 1989 settlement in which the state acknowledged a past role in segregation of Little Rock area schools, the state has paid about $1.2 billion to bolster desegregation programs in the Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County school districts.
McDaniel told reporters after Marshall’s decision Monday that "it’s hard to put into words how important … this is for this state."
In November, parties in the case — the three districts and the state, along with lawyers representing black students and school employees — agreed to a proposal to end about $70 million annually in state payments to the three districts after the 2017-18 school year. In 2018-19, the three districts would get another year of payments to be used exclusively for school buildings.
John Walker, attorney for black students and their parents known as the Joshua intervenors since the case began, said the decision was historic because the state in four years will end its paying of $70 million to the districts "to facilitate promoting a better education."
"My concern has always been whether or not the funds flowed to the benefit of the minority children and my answer is still the same, those funds have not flowed to their benefit," Walker said. "At least at this point the districts will all have to focus on better educating children on the basis of their resources and they will do so without any assistance from the federal courts."
During Monday’s hearing, Jerry Guess, superintendent of the Pulaski County Special School District, Kelly Rodgers, superintendent of the North Little Rock district, and Kelsey Bailey, chief financial officer of the Little Rock district, told the judge that the districts would have to cut some programs and possibly reduce staff, and that plans are under consideration.
Marshall gave preliminary approval to the proposal in November after the parties urged the judge to OK the agreement.
Marshall signed off on the pact after hearing several hours of testimony from opponents of the deal and lawyers for the school districts and parties involved in the case. The judge had set aside Monday and Tuesday for what is known as a "fairness hearing" to allow the public to register opinions regarding the proposed settlement.
Objections made during the hearing ranged from what happens to students currently enrolled in magnet school programs in the Little Rock School District to whether students in majority-to-minority transfers can stay at the school they currently attend until they graduate.
Lawyers from the districts told Marshall students enrolled at a magnet school could continue until they complete the grades at that location. They then would have to reapply. Lawyers also said students in majority-to-minority transfers would be able to stay at their school until they graduate.
Representatives of the Sherwood Education Foundation, along with the Sherwood mayor, objected to a provision in the agreement that clears the way for creation of a new school district in Jacksonville but prohibits the establishment of any other new school districts in Pulaski County until the PCSSD is declared unitary — largely desegregated — and released from federal court supervision.
The Little Rock and North Little Rock districts previously were granted unitary status by the court.
Linda Remele, co-chairwoman of the foundation, said Sherwood is the 14th largest city in the state, and the largest city without an independent school district. She said the community has been working for years to create its own district.
Beverly Williams, co-chairman of the foundation, said the "finish line keeps changing" and no one really knows when the PCSD will be declared unitary.
Guess and officials from the other school districts testified that their budgets would be impacted by the loss of the additional state funds, but they would adjust.
Guess said he expects, when everything is settled, to see his district’s revenue reduced 12 percent, and that would mean a reduction in staff. He said he expects the district to continue to move toward unitary status.
"Do you believe that the program that’s generally outlined … will lead your district to complete unitary status?" PCSSD attorney Alan Roberts asked Guess.
"Yes, I do," Guess replied, adding that the district will meet unitary in most areas outlined by the court "perhaps rather quickly, within a year. I think it may take the full three years of the continued funding to finally attain unitary funding in all of those areas."
He said facilities funding would be the most difficult to attain.
Rodgers said preliminary plans call for the North Little Rock district to reduce staff by an average of 27 employees a year over the next four years. He said the district is currently undergoing a major capital improvement project that will reduce the number of schools in the district from 19 to 13.
Bailey said part of the proposal would change the Little Rock district’s magnet program, meaning the district would reduce the number of students transferring from the North Little Rock and Pulaski County Special districts. He said over time the North Little Rock district could see its certified and non-certified staff reduced by 200.