LITTLE ROCK (AP) — The Little Rock School District on Friday appealed a federal judge’s ruling that allows the state to end most desegregation funding for three Little Rock-area school districts, and state officials said they were beginning discussions on how to stop the payments.
The district filed a notice of appeal to U.S. District Judge Brian Miller’s order that released the state’s obligation to pay for most desegregation funding under a 1989 settlement with the Little Rock, Pulaski County Special and North Little Rock school districts.
In his order Thursday, Miller left in place funding for "majority to minority" transfers, which allow students in the three districts to go from a school where their race is the majority to a school where their race is a minority.
Chris Heller, an attorney for the Little Rock district, said he planned to ask Miller early next week to stay his order and wanted the U.S. Court of Appeals to consider the case on an expedited basis.
"The concern is trying to plan for school next year," Heller said, adding that Miller’s order would eliminate half of the funding for the district’s magnet schools and all of the funding for magnet school transportation.
The three districts receive about $70 million a year, and about $21 million goes to pay for the transfers.
The state has paid more than $980 million under the settlement agreement, and lawmakers have long derided the payments. In his order, Miller said the payments had created an "absurd" outcome where the districts were rewarded for not complying with their desegregation plans.
Miller released the state’s obligation for the payments in a ruling where he declared the Pulaski County and North Little Rock districts "unitary," or substantially desegregated in several key areas but not in others. Little Rock was declared unitary in 2007.
Arkansas was a defendant in a 1982 lawsuit that accused it of not doing enough to help the three districts desegregate. The state agreed to a settlement in 1989 that required it to provide additional funding.
State officials said Friday they were just beginning discussions on how to carry out Miller’s order and did not know how or when the payments would end.
Gov. Mike Beebe, Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell and Attorney General Dustin McDaniel were still reviewing the decision and discussing how to implement the order, a spokesman for Beebe said.
"I think they all feel that the first priority is to make sure you’re not leaving these kids without the tools for a proper education," Beebe spokesman Matt DeCample said. "I think that’s where the discussion begins and we’ll go from there."
McDaniel and lawmakers have long called for an end to the desegregation payments. The attorney general’s office last month released reports that showed Pulaski County and North Little Rock schools spent much of the money for purposes other than desegregation. The reviews were compiled by accounting firm Navigant.
"Let’s be clear, the state is committed to ensuring that adequate resources exist to educate kids in these districts. One of the reasons I wanted Navigant to come in and do the reports is we expected that someday the funding would end," McDaniel said. "There was a dispute between us and the districts on how soon that might be, but I was very concerned about whether or not the districts were reliant on the money as incentive money or if it was going into their general operating capital."
In his ruling, Miller did not spell out how the state could end the desegregation funding. Miller also ordered the three districts show why funding should continue for the majority-to-minority transfers.
Pulaski County Superintendent Charles Hopson said one possibility is a phased end of the funding.
"A phase-out would probably be the most respectful way to do it," Hopson said.
DeCample said gradually eliminating the funding is one option, but that officials are still discussing how to carry out the order and did not have a timeline for the plan.
"It’s not necessarily and all or nothing situation, but there’s obviously a lot of different forms that could take," DeCample said.