Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Education Board member reacts to federal court transfer ruling

Posted By on Tue, Aug 9, 2016 at 11:46 AM

DIANE ZOOK: Now she'll abide by the court orders in the Pulaski desegregation case.
  • DIANE ZOOK: Now she'll abide by the court orders in the Pulaski desegregation case.
Diane Zook, the state Education Board member who spearheaded action that led to Judge Price Marshall's ruling yesterday that the state couldn't ignore the Pulaski school desegregation case in deciding school transfers, says she'll abide by that ruling on future transfers, at least in the district at issue.

I asked for her reaction to a ruling that the Education Board had acted outside its authority when it voted, on Zook's argument, to allow a transfer from the new Jacksonville-North Pulaski School District to Cabot. In the steps leading up to the separation of that district from the Pulaski County School District, it was the understanding of all parties, including the state, that Jacksonville would continue to opt out, along with Pulaski County, from the state law that removed barriers to interdistrict school transfers except where federal court desegregation cases stood in the way.

In the case that prompted court action, the board approved transfer of a black student to the whiter Cabot district, not segregative in itself. But the precedent could lead to such student movement and all student loss is critical to Jacksonville as it gets on its feet financially. Zook said she wanted to side with the family in voting to ignore the understanding embodied in an agreement in the federal court desegregation case, where the Pulaski and Jacksonville districts have still not been ruled fully desegregated.

Zook's response to my request for a reactionto the judge's ruling and whether she'd abide by the judge's order in the future:

We got the clarification we had been asking JNPSD to get from Judge Marshall. I appreciate that.

Yes, wherever there is clear direction from the Federal judge who has oversight.
That answer naturally raised a question about how she'd handle transfer requests from other districts in the state opting out of the school transfer law. A concerted effort is underway — cheerled by a Walton Family F0undation-paid lobbyist, Gary Newton, who happens to be Zook's nephew, and often  litigated by Little Rock lawyer Jess Askew, a frequent legal player in Walton-backed school "choice" efforts — to knock down any remaining barriers to school transfers in Arkansas. At the same time the Board of Education approved the Jacksonville request, for example, it allowed the transfer of a white student from the El Dorado School District, about 50-50 racially mixed, to the predominantly white Parkers Chapel District. El Dorado contends it is under an active federal court desegregation ruling and objected to the transfer, which a Board majority approved anyway. In this case, Zook voted against the transfer.

To my followup, Zook responded:

The School Choice Law of 2015 states that Districts are to provide information as to whether or not there is a genuine conflict, from the Court under which they are claiming exemption from School Choice.

In addition, Districts are to provide to ADE's office that oversees accreditation, the District's efforts to become/seek unitary status.

The 2015 law applies to all districts except PCSSD, JNPSD and the Garland County Districts.

I will abide by these laws, as it is my charge to do.

If you are making an attempt to paint me as a segregationist, my life and 48 years of professional and volunteer experience demonstrate otherwise.
I noted that Zook had not abided by the 2015 law in approving the Jacksonville transfer. The judge, in hearing the issue yesterday, said that while the words of the written order might not have been clear on the point, the understanding of all parties at the time was clear.

 Zook responded to my further question on that point:

"We just got the clarification yesterday! I wanted to hear from the judge. Now I have."

The strategy of those favoring unlimited transfers, regardless of impact on desegregation, seems to be to get court reviews moved into state court, where the atmosphere probably would be more amenable to state legislative desires than the federal court. 

I'm wondering if this is the future legal end game: Transfers are sought in non-participating districts; the state Education Board deems the segregation issue dead in those districts and approves transfers.  School districts are then forced to seek judicial advisory opinions — generally not readily available — to prevent school transfers. Or else simply fold to the pressure to save the legal cost.

Finally a comment: Unlimited school transfers will lead to race-related transfer decisions in several places in Arkansas. That is not a comment on Diane Zook's heart or mind, only a simple fact.

Incidentally, it's unclear whether the Board of Education must take any action to undo its earlier vote after yesterday's hearing.  Zook said she presumed Cabot or Jacksonville would notify the family, but she intended to find out to be sure.

Finally, Judge Marshall entered a brief formal order today on the transfer matter, which said in part:

The parties' 2014 settlement agreement, as embodied in this Court's Consent Judgment, NQ 5063, obligates the State Board of Education to honor exemptions from the School Choice Act claimed by the Pulaski County Special School District and the Jacksonville/North Pulaski School District through the 2018-2019 school year. The State Board's 15 July 2016 decision granting the Dulaneys' school choice appeal, NQ 5223-5, is set aside.

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