Supreme Court grants halt of Little Rock School lawsuit | Arkansas Blog

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Supreme Court grants halt of Little Rock School lawsuit

Posted By on Thu, Mar 19, 2015 at 2:29 PM

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The Arkansas Supreme Court has just granted the state Education Department's request for an emergency stay of further proceedings in the lawsuit challenging the state takeover of the Little Rock School District.

The brief order gave no explanation of the reasoning.

I remind you this is the same court that has dithered for four months on a completed case seeking equality for thousands of Arkansans. But it was able to get a decision out on whether the state or elected school board members should be operating the Little Rock School District. Based on evidence so far, state operation hasn't been much different than School Board operation, except for the absence of elected representatives.

The request for a stay was part of the Education Department's appeal of Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen's ruling that the lawsuit was not barred by the doctrine of sovereign immunity. The theory that the state cannot be sued generally applies only to monetary damages. None are being sought in this case, but rather the return of the school district to local control. Griffen ruled, as many other courts have, that sovereign immunity does not apply on questions of whether the state has exceeded its authority and acted arbitrarily. He said plaintiffs had asserted sufficient ground to have a trial on the facts of those allegations.

The halt to further proceedings includes the judge's order for briefs on a constitutional question about the state takeover. Those briefs had been due Friday.

In making the ruling today, the Supreme Court did not consider the state's request that Griffen not hear this case on account of his published comments in opposition to a state takeover in advance of the state Board of Education's vote. Court members were, of course, aware of that.

The stay came as Dexter Suggs, the interim superintendent, was testifying about difficult relationships with the School Board. The judge brought the hearing to a speedy end and said they'd await further word from the Supreme Court. Willard Proctor, attorney for the plaintiffs, got notice of the order by e-mail and called it to attention of the judge.

Diane Curry and Jim Ross, both former School Board members and plaintiffs, testified today about efforts to improve the schools. A school administrator for middle schools also said he believed the takeover wasn't necessary.

UPDATE FROM BENJI:

I missed the big moment in court this afternoon, but the morning included one episode worth noting: The testimony of Dan Whitehorn, the LRSD's assistant superintendent for middle schools, who is one of Suggs' immediate lieutenants.

The staff who sit atop the LRSD hierarchy below Suggs play an odd role in the fight over the future of the district. On the one hand, they take marching orders directly from Suggs. On the other, they wield power of their own inside the district bureaucracy; many have been in the LRSD for far longer than the superintendent himself, and they surely have plenty of opinions about what's happening to their schools. It's rare for them to make their perspectives known, but Whitehorn was compelled by the court to testify.

Whitehorn has worked for the LRSD for decades, he said, first as an assistant principal at Central and later as principal at Pulaski Heights. (It's my udnerstanding he's been in the assistant super position since 2012.)

Unlike Suggs, who has indicated that he found the former LRSD board to be divided and contentious, Whitehorn said he believed there was "a real sense of urgency among local board members to deal with the 6 academically distressed schools."

He said that sometimes the board's dealings with Suggs were "strained" but described it as "a passionate working relationship." He said that the board's work session meetings were "some of the most collegial in my time."

When asked by an attorney for the plaintiffs whether he believed the takeover and removal of the school board was necessary, Whitehorn replied "no sir." He reiterated that the "new elected members" — that is, Ross and Joy Springer — demonstrated a "real sense of urgency to improve instruction in the Little Rock School District"

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