UPDATE: Legislative Council endorses school settlement, even without Walker | Arkansas Blog

Friday, November 15, 2013

UPDATE: Legislative Council endorses school settlement, even without Walker

Posted By on Fri, Nov 15, 2013 at 11:30 AM

click to enlarge JOHN WALKER: Said lawsuit still hasn't provided equal opportunities for black children.
  • JOHN WALKER: Said lawsuit still hasn't provided equal opportunities for black children.
UPDATE: On a motion of Sen. Jane English, the Legislative Council voted today to recommend the proposed settlement of the Pulaski County desegregation case.

The motion authorizes Attorney General Dustin McDaniel to seek discharge from court even if John Walker, attorney for the Joshua intervenors, who represent black families in the county, doesn't join the agreement.

The Council also approved the proposal on attorney fees — $250,000 for attorneys for each of the three school districts.

Afterward, Chris Heller, attorney for the Little Rock School District, said the School Board would meet Monday night to vote on whether to participate without the Joshua intervenors. Its vote last night to approve the settlement was conditioned on all parties participating. Heller said he believed the board would be receptive. He also said he did not think the board would be receptive to a last-minute try by Walker to include the dropping of a new west Little Rock middle school as a condition for his joining the agreement.

Heller said he was nonetheless optimistic might still join the settlement before a midnight Tuesday deadline set by McDaniel. He said the parties were close. Jerry Guess, interim superintendent for the Pulaski district, said he remained hopeful, too, of a unanimous resolution.

Before the vote, Walker himself, a member of the Council, set in motion interesting comments by McDaniel by asking him if he had told legislators why the Joshua intervenors were reluctant to settle. Walker prefaced the question by noting his awkward position as a legislator who represents the Joshua intervenors as their lawyer. He also reiterated his belief that, despite all the money spent, that the lack of equal opportunity and achievement among black children still had not been adequately addressed.

On the negotiations, McDaniel said: "I don't know what the Joshua intervenors want that they have not received. I can't think of a thing they've asked me for that they have not been given."

McDaniel said Walker at one point wanted a $50 million trust fund to help prepare black students in the Pulaski County School District for college and to award $4,000 scholarships to students with low ACT scores. McDaniel said that wasn't something the legislature likely would have approved and he declined to try.

But McDaniel said the parties had worked out a deal where the Pulaski district agreed that, given the settlement money and other state aid, it could find a way to create $30 million in funding that could be channeled to UALR for the college prep work and scholarship help.

He said he'd heard no objection to his proposal to declare Walker a prevailing party and let the court determine a proper fee. Prevailing party status was a significant designation.

Then, this morning, McDaniel said Walker wanted the state to add a stipulation that the Little Rock School District not be allowed to build a new middle school in west Little Rock. "That's between Joshua and Little Rock," McDaniel said. So he said he'd agreed to a stipulation that would allow Little Rock and Walker to negotiate issues "on the side" even beyond today.

The middle school issue dropped something of a bomb in the question of Little Rock settlement. A land deal has been done. It's a priority of Superintendent Dexter Suggs. Its abandonment also would cripple an already difficult case in which the Little Rock district is fighting a charter school plan aimed at scooping up high income white students in Chenal Valley, precisely the area the new middle school would serve.

Council members had many questions. But they weren't for the most part combative, as evidenced by the later speedy approval. Most had been well-versed in advance with McDaniel's argument that the settlement was the easiest way to bring certainty to the state's commitment of time and money to the case.

In the questioning, McDaniel also said he believed the Little Rock School District would vote to move ahead with the settlement without John Walker. He sounded resigned to the likelihood that Walker would not join the settlement, despite more optimistic remarks I heard later. He was confident, too, of the chances of prevailing before the 8th Circuit in ending the case without Walker.

That won't be so speedy in any case. Without Walker, the hearing set before Judge Price Marshall will at least be complicated by his objection. Then Walker would have an appeal, a process of many months. He would also continue with a separate court challenge of state approval of segregating open enrollment charter schools in Little Rock. All that is time and some more money. His inclusion would clearly be preferable.

Walker is left standing alone. It cuts both ways on the chances of settlement. To fight on, he fights alone against uncertain odds. To join, he presents some appearance of capitulation, though it's clear that Pulaski has given him quite a bit in the effort to settle the question of whether it is fully desegregated. The element of that debate that presents the biggest obstacle to court approval is the clear lack of compliance on equal facilities, with shabby schools in the blacker parts of the county and a palace of a new high school in majority white Maumelle.

UPDATE: I spoke briefly with Walker as headed to take a deposition of a state Education Department employee as part of his case that the state has not monitored compliance with the 1989 settlement. He was to talk there, too, with McDaniel. He's not ready to rule out the possibility of joining the agreement. And he contended McDaniel had misrepresented what he said about the west Little Rock middle school. He's never been warm to the idea. But he said he brought it up as an example of misplaced priorities against great facility needs in Southwest Little Rock. A new high school is planned there, though Walker has objections about its planned size. He said a west Little Rock middle school was all but a foregone conclusion because it will require a bond issue, along with other facility needs, and the middle school will be vital to attract white votes for the millage. Walker commented that the district faces a great threat in that neighborhood from a tenatively approved Quest charter middle school that has plans to expand into high school grades. This could drain high-income white families that now attend Central High School from a satellite attendance zone and ultimately end to its demise as an integrated high school, he said.



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