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Earlier this year — half a century after black students first entered all-white Central High to begin integrating Little Rock's public schools — a federal court finally declared the school district officially integrated.
The 25-year-old desegregation case, and others before it, had hung over virtually every major decision the School District made since 1957. The release from court supervision should have been a landmark, liberating event.
But the Little Rock School District of 2007 is more racially polarized than it has been in years, possibly decades.
The process that began at Central 50 years ago has evolved into a school system where most black students go to majority-black schools while a dwindling white student population has retreated to a handful of magnet schools and campuses in majority-white neighborhoods.
Nor has the district managed to make much progress erasing perhaps the most important and most harmful legacy of segregation: The disparity between minority and white students' educational achievement.
And that's just the kids.
For those who weren't around to witness the screaming mobs outside Central in 1957, it can be hard to imagine a more tense relationship between blacks and whites than that which developed around the racially tinged, months-long effort of the School Board's first-ever black majority — repeatedly referred to as the “Gang of Four” on the Democrat-Gazette's editorial page — to get rid of Superintendent Roy Brooks earlier this year. Brooks, who is black, had been hired by a then-white-majority School Board. He drew support from an overwhelmingly white parents' group and Little Rock's white business community — including Democrat-Gazette publisher Walter Hussman.
A black majority on the board actually reflects the makeup of a School District in which nearly 70 percent of students are black and fewer than a quarter are white. But this hasn't prevented at least speculation that some whites in Little Rock feel uncomfortable, if not outright threatened, about having blacks in control of the district for the first time.
“The difficulties, the tension around the change from a white majority to a black majority for the first time on the School Board seems to be an enormous change to many people,” said Brownie Ledbetter, one of the original white advocates of integration during the Central High crisis. “It's a question of power. Some people feel that whites need to be in control.”
The School Board president, Katherine Mitchell, led the push to oust Brooks, and vote after vote on the issue broke down 4-3 along racial lines. Board members also were deciding how to proceed in the desegregation case — chiefly whether to negotiate a settlement with attorney John Walker, who had appealed the ruling that released the district from court supervision. The four-member majority, again voting together, chose to ignore the advice of the School District's attorney and seek a settlement.
The tension on the racially split board escalated through this spring and summer. Its black and white members often barely managed to speak civilly to one another at public meetings.
“We've pretty much gone backward, especially at the highest levels, in the way we do business and deal with personnel,” said board member Baker Kurrus, who is white. “The level of discourse has dropped. We've ceased to talk to one another.”
Kurrus and Mitchell disagreed on how much — and how new — a factor race had become in board members' relations and decision-making.
Mitchell, who's been on the board for more than 18 years, said white and black board members had frequently staked opposing ground in the past.