LITTLE ROCK (AP) — Lawyers for the state of Arkansas, three Little Rock-area school districts and black schoolchildren went to federal court Monday seeking approval of a settlement agreement that would end special state aid earmarked for desegregation efforts.
U.S. District Judge Price Marshall tentatively approved the pact in November but asked school patrons to weigh in on whether the settlement is fair, adequate and reasonable. The judge received eight objections, but only four who lodged written complaints with the court showed up for Monday’s hearing.
Since 1989, the state has given the Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County Special school districts a total of more than $1 billion above their regular state appropriations to fund magnet schools and transport students from districts where they’d be in the majority to districts where they’d be in the minority. This year’s payments amount to about $70 million, total.
Lawyers for the state, the districts and children expect Marshall to approve the settlement.
"We cannot in the settlement agreement please everybody in the world," said John Walker, a state representative who represents schoolchildren known as the Joshua Intervenors.
Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, who previously asked the court to stop the payments immediately, told Marshall that all parties had to give. McDaniel’s request to end the payments immediately is scheduled to go to trial in March, unless a settlement is finalized.
"The incentives are great for all of us," he said. "We know that if litigation results in a harsh outcome (for one party or another), the true victims are the students.
The current lawsuit was filed in 1982 — when the Little Rock district said policies among the state and the North Little Rock and Pulaski County districts left all schools countywide with a racial imbalance. Under a 1989 settlement, the state agreed to give the districts more money but the funding never ended.
The Little Rock and North Little Rock districts have been declared integrated; Pulaski County has been found short in several areas, including facilities.
Under the proposed pact, the payments would continue for four more years, with final-year funding earmarked for facilities. Without the settlement, the districts risk having funding cut off immediately.
Objections raised in court Monday included whether students currently in magnet school programs could continue in their current curricula (they can’t) and whether students in majority-to-minority transfers can stay where they are until graduation (they can).
Residents in Sherwood, a Little Rock suburb, also want permission to establish their own district without having to wait until Pulaski County’s district is declared integrated. A separate city, Jacksonville, is in line to set up its own district.
Beverly Williams, who represents a group of Sherwood-area school patrons, said the community has worked for years to carve out its own district.
"The finish line keeps moving," she said.
Marshall cannot modify the terms of the agreement; he can only approve or reject it.
A federal judge in 2011 attempted to end the funding, but the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overruled him, saying no party had asked to end the payments. Then, federal judge Brian Miller said the state had used a carrot-and-stick approach, but that the districts had learned how to "eat the carrot and sit down on the job" by not doing everything possible to integrate schools.
Little Rock was the scene of the nation’s first major desegregation battle when President Dwight Eisenhower used federal troops to escort nine black schoolchildren into Central High School, the city system’s flagship school. Court cases involving desegregation have been in place during most years since then.