Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Federal judge hears arguments in suit seeking reversal of Little Rock schools takeover

Posted By on Tue, Mar 22, 2016 at 6:12 PM

In a hearing in federal court today, a team of lawyers including Rep. John Walker (D-Little Rock) made their case to U.S. District Judge Price Marshall that the January 2015 state takeover of the Little Rock School District should be reversed. A lawsuit in state court was dismissed by the Arkansas Supreme Court last October.

Plaintiffs named in the case include a number of African American students in the LRSD and their parents (identified as "Does"), and former LRSD board members Jim Ross and Joy Springer. The defendants are the state Education Department, the state Board of Education, Education Commissioner Johnny Key and Superintendent Baker Kurrus, who was appointed by Key to run the district while under state control.

In addition to reinstating the LRSD board and reversing the takeover, the plaintiffs also seek an injunction blocking the opening of a new middle school in west Little Rock and the opening or expansion of charter schools in west Little Rock, both of which the allege will lead to further disadvantages for black students.

I didn't catch the morning proceedings. In the afternoon, however, testimony centered on facilities, with plaintiffs attempting to show a racially motivated pattern of resource distribution within the district. Campuses on the north and west sides of town consistently have received more resources, they argued, than those on southwest, central and east sides of Little Rock (which are predominately minority and low-income).

Walker's team called to the stand Karen DeJarnette, a former employee of the LRSD who served as director of planning, research and evaluation for years. DeJarnette began working for the district in 2004 and has been a vocal critic of disparities within the district. She described her evaluation activities under former superintendent Dexter Suggs, which included detailed tours of school campuses and weekly reports sent to Suggs and his staff on conditions in those schools. (The reports usually went unacknowledged by Suggs, she said.)

DeJarnette delivered a scathing review of the facilities at southwest Little Rock's Cloverdale Middle School, which is almost entirely black and Hispanic. (Cloverdale is also one of the six campuses deemed to be in "academic distress" for low student achievement, thus paving the way for the state takeover of the district.)
She described seeing in 2013 "the most extreme disrepair and uncleanliness," including leaking ceilings in the cafeteria, exposed wiring and insulation, insect infestations, mold, cluttered hallways and one classroom with a chronic gas leak. DeJarnette described returning to Cloverdale a year later, in 2014; some issues had been fixed but many others remained the same, she said. District administrators acknowledged the problems but seemed to show little urgency in addressing them. Walker submitted as exhibits some of the photos she took of the school on both visit.

Walker asked DeJarnette whether she observed "any marked difference between schools to the north and west and those to the south and the east." She then described the conditions at Don Roberts Elementary in west Little Rock. "Roberts is vastly different. ... It's one of the nicest schools I've ever been in," she said, describing spacious classrooms and ample equipment. Walker submitted photos of the school's impressive facilities as further exhibits. Roberts is 58 percent white, a much higher percentage than the LRSD as a whole (the elementary is almost 30 percent black and Hispanic as well). 

Because Roberts was built by the district at a time when Baker Kurrus served on the LRSD board, Walker argues that the construction of the school provides evidence that Kurrus prioritizes the needs of west Little Rock above the desperate conditions in schools like Cloverdale. DeJarnette described similar — though less extreme — patterns in schools like Dunbar Middle School (which she said was vastly overcrowded) and Forest Heights Middle School.

Attorneys representing the defendants included Chris Heller, a longtime lawyer for the LRSD. Heller asked DeJarnette to identify the races of the superintendents she worked for during her decade at the LRSD. She said they were all African American, with the exception of Kurrus (who was hired less than a year ago). And the school board, he asked? It was majority white until 2007, then was majority black thereafter, she responded.

Heller's questions attempted to poke holes in the plaintiffs' narrative of a district motivated by racial discrimination in allocating resources. He pointed out passages in DeJarnette's reports in which she noted positive aspects of facilities that served mostly black students, including Dunbar. Stephens Elementary is 92 percent black, yet one of DeJarnette's reports mentions it along with Roberts as having high quality facilities, Heller said.

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