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Free at last? 

Or will obstacles persist in getting LR schools out of court?

click to enlarge KAREN DEJARNETTE: Wrote controversial report to board.
  • KAREN DEJARNETTE: Wrote controversial report to board.

Over the last 50 years, the Little Rock School District has fought black parents, the federal government, the state, Pulaski County’s other two school districts, its own teachers, and, through the Joshua intervenors, every black student in Little Rock in a series of court cases seeking to establish a “desegregated” system of public schools.

But as district administrators head into what could be their final court hearing on Dec. 18 — when Judge Bill Wilson could at long last declare the district “unitary” and free it from court supervision once and for all — the biggest threat to its success appears to be coming from within.

Karen DeJarnette, director of the Planning, Research and Evaluation Department — hired in 2004 specifically to deal with Wilson’s latest deseg order — went public last month with her claims that not only is the district not in compliance with the court’s requirements, but that district administrators — including Superintendent Roy Brooks — have kept information from both the court and the district’s board of education about the obstacles her department has faced meeting the court order. Omission of that information “allows a reader’s false impression that the district has progressed further than it in fact has,” DeJarnette wrote in a Nov. 3 letter to board members.

The Little Rock School District’s first desegregation case began in 1956, the year before the Little Rock Nine enrolled at Central High. Court supervision has been continuous since then, under several different lawsuits.

Through the 1960s, the district’s desegregation plan was simply “freedom of choice,” letting students go where they wanted, but that was ruled unconstitutional in 1968. So the district instituted geographic attendance zones, but those were tossed out as well because segregated neighborhoods naturally produced segregated schools. Crosstown busing began in 1971.

The current desegregation suit was filed in federal court by the Little Rock School District in 1982. The district sued the state, the Arkansas Department of Education, the Pulaski County Special School District and the North Little Rock School District on the ground that they had practices that hindered desegregation. The suit asked that all three districts be consolidated to address Little Rock schools’ declining white population.

That solution was eventually thrown out, but the LRSD’s borders were expanded to match, for the most part, the city limits, and boosted the district’s white population somewhat.

During the 1980s, other parties got involved as well, most importantly the Joshua intervenors, who represent the district’s black students and are represented by well-known civil rights attorney John Walker. Today, the lawsuit has evolved to a point that the Little Rock School District is a de facto defendant, with the Joshua intervenors its primary adversary. North Little Rock and Pulaski County schools are still subject to court supervision, but have not filed motions to be released as Little Rock has.

It seems counterintuitive that a district that is almost 70 percent black is not officially desegregated; whites may be concentrated at a relatively small number of schools in the district, but those schools still have large minority populations.

But the desegregation case left that simplistic definition behind almost 20 years ago. In 1989, a settlement in the case recognized that Little Rock was unitary in terms of student assignment, staff hiring and similar issues. From that point, the case focused instead on “secondary” desegregation issues — such as improving the academic achievement of black students, whose standardized test scores perennially lag behind white students’.

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