LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Attorneys say the state and school districts embroiled in a fight over funding in Arkansas’ decades-old desegregation efforts have made no progress in ending the case on their own, indicating that they may not reach a settlement before a federal appeals court weighs in on the case.
The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will likely take several months, if not longer, to decide whether a lower court judge was right to cut off most of the state’s desegregation funding. Arkansas spends about $70 million a year on desegregation and more than $1 billion since a 1989 settlement.
In May, U.S. District Judge Brian Miller ordered an end to most of the payments, calling them counterproductive. The districts appealed to the appeals court, which halted the effect of Miller’s ruling and heard the case Monday.
Arkansas is required by the settlement to fund magnet schools, transfers between districts and other programs to support desegregation. Lawmakers have long wanted to end the payments, but the districts say they remain necessary.
Attorneys for the state and the schools said they remain open to a settlement, but there have been no negotiations in recent months. Two years ago, Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel offered the three districts a compromise to phase out desegregation funding over seven years.
"I was disappointed that we didn’t make more progress before those discussions ended," McDaniel said through a spokesman. "Since then, no one has called me, but I am always willing to listen."
Chris Heller, the attorney for the Little Rock School District, said the district’s financial office was compiling figures on how much the district could eventually accept in a settlement. He said he told school board members that they should be open to offers.
"I’ve always told them that we should be open to" offers, Heller said.
Attorneys for North Little Rock and Pulaski County, as well as lawmakers on the Arkansas House and Senate education committees, also said they were not involved in any discussions to settle the case.
Battles over school desegregation in Little Rock go back to 1957, when nine black children needed the protection of federal troops to integrate Central High School. Little Rock sued the state and its two neighboring districts in 1982. Two years later, a judge agreed that the districts hadn’t done enough to help the city schools desegregate.
Magnet schools created by the settlement have successfully drawn in white and black students. But thousands of students still have to be bused out of their neighborhoods, and black students continue to do much worse on tests than white students.
Little Rock has been declared unitary, or substantially desegregated. North Little Rock and Pulaski County remain under court supervision.
In 2007, the Arkansas Legislature passed a proposal that would allow the state to negotiate an agreement with the districts if they were declared unitary. But Miller refused to declare either district entirely unitary in his May order.
Any solution negotiated outside a courtroom faces major obstacles.
Stephen Jones, North Little Rock’s attorney, said that one or two districts couldn’t settle with the state on their own without certainty that a judge wouldn’t order them to take on new responsibilities with Little Rock. All sides would have to agree to how much money would be paid out, he said.
"If you settle unilaterally with the state, that doesn’t affect the obligations that you have with the other parties," he said.
Besides the differences between the districts, a settlement would also likely have to satisfy a group of black students involved in the case, known as the Joshua intervenors. That group has been dissatisfied with efforts by the districts to desegregate.
"We have to get everybody on the same board and the same place," Jones said. "So far, we haven’t been able to do that."
John Walker, an attorney for the intervenors, said neither the state nor the districts have met their obligations to educating black children, making a settlement impossible.
"This could go on and on and on, not only through my lifetime but through several lifetimes, unless there is some good-faith implementation of the agreements that have been reached," he said.
Also Friday, U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr., who took the case at the district level after Miller recused himself, denied several motions made by the Joshua intervenors after Miller’s ruling. Walker argued that Miller was mistaken in several areas regarding the North Little Rock and Pulaski County schools. Marshall replied that the appeals court was now responsible for reviewing Miller’s ruling.