LITTLE ROCK — The state and lawyers for three Little Rock area school districts have reached a tentative settlement to end state involvement in the long-running Pulaski County school desegregation case, Attorney General Dustin McDaniel told legislators Thursday.
The pact would end state desegregation payments of nearly $70 million annually to the Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County Special districts after three years and clear the way for creation of a new school district in Jacksonville, McDaniel told members of the Legislative Litigation Oversight Committee.
"This is finally the opportunity to bring about a tangible end to this case and allow us to put our focus back on the classrooms instead of the courtrooms," McDaniel told the Joint Subcommittee on Desegregation Litigation Oversight.
The attorney general is to present the proposal to Legislative Council Friday. The settlement proposal must be approved by Legislative Council before McDaniel can present it to a federal judge in December.
The Little Rock and North Little Rock school boards were to consider the proposal at separate meetings Thursday night.
"I never saw this as a requisite step to (Legislative) Council, but it made perfect since," McDaniel said after the meeting, but he said the appearance afforded him "a great opportunity to reveal the document as it existed at the time and a great opportunity to reveal it to both the Legislature and the public. I wanted to give the (lawmakers) an advanced view, let them ask some questions — certainly they had plenty, and I anticipate there will be more" Friday.
He said he expects the settlement to be endorsed by Legislative Council Friday and that he will present to a federal judge at a hearing previously scheduled for Dec. 9.
Under the proposal, the state would continue to make annual payments to fund desegregation programs of $37.3 million to the Little Rock district, $20.8 million to the Pulaski County Special School District and $7.6 million to the North Little Rock district through the 2017-18 school year.
The districts would get another year of payments in 2018-19 to be used exclusively for school buildings.
The proposal provides that at the end of three years, the state may authorize creation of a separate Jacksonville School District, and that the state would have full and final release from the school desegregation case that dates back to the 1957 Little Rock school integration crisis.
"Make no mistake, this is not a done deal yet," McDaniel told lawmakers. "But we are at an historic milestone."
One stumbling block to the proposed settlement is that lawyers for the Joshua intervenors — black parents in the Little Rock district — have not signed off on the agreement. The attorney general said if they do not agree, legal precedents from other states may allow the settlement to move forward.
Rep. John Walker, D-Little Rock, an attorney for the Joshua intervenors, said near the end of Thursday’s meeting that he doubted his clients would support the proposal.
"What we sought to obtain years ago has not been obtained, and while we go through legal determinations that certain results have been achieved, we have had a lot of money spent, and it’s still going to be spent, and the original undertaking is left to be achieved," Walker said.
He said one big concern about the proposal was the stipulation that would allow a proposal for an independent Jacksonville School District to move forward.
"It’s clear … the state is aware, though not perhaps through General McDaniel, that once you detach Jacksonville you have in waiting Chenal, you have Sherwood and you have Maumelle, and then you have left where you began originally before 1954 — a segregated southeast quarter school district," he said. "And you can look at the facilities and see that they are unequal facilities."
Requiring the three districts to use their desegregation payments in 2018-19 exclusively for buildings would let the districts build new schools in only affluent areas.
"If you look at Little Rock, the affluent children have schools that reflect affluency of the neighborhood where they are located," he said, adding the issue of race still exists "with respect to the history of unequal facilities at the least."
After the meeting, McDaniel told reporters he expected Legislative Council to authorize him to move forward with the agreement and that he held out hope that the Joshua intervenors agree to it.
"It is a very fair deal for all concerned, and in my opinion that includes Joshua, so I hope they will consent to being a part of it," he said.
The Little Rock and North Little Rock school boards were to consider the proposed settlement in separate meetings Thursday night. The state dissolved the Pulaski County district’s school board when it took over the district in 2012, and the district is run by a state-appointed superintendent.
McDaniel said his office was prepared move forward with the state’s motion in federal court to discontinue the desegregation funding if settlement negotiations fall through.
"We feel good we can go in front of the judge with all the districts, and it would be nice if we had Joshua with us, but it’s not necessary," he said.