Thursday, April 16, 2015

And you thought the Pulaski desegregation lawsuit was over

Posted By on Thu, Apr 16, 2015 at 10:07 AM

click to enlarge BACK IN COURT: A desegregation lawsuit hearing in federal court Friday could be momentous.
  • BACK IN COURT: A desegregation lawsuit hearing in federal court Friday could be momentous.
Federal Judge Price Marshall is to hold a hearing at 10 a.m. Friday, requested by civil rights lawyer John Walker, about progress in bringing the Pulaski County Special School District to "unitary," or fully desegregated, status.

The ancient Pulaski County school desegregation case was all but ended last year, after declaration of unitary status for North Little Rock and Little Rock and an agreement to bring to an end state payments to the three school districts by 2018.

Pulaski County remained under monitoring to remedy facilities shortcomings, student discipline questions and the lingering achievement gap for minority students. But most expected speedy progress to completion of the case. There have been snags. Among them: The agreement also opened the door to separation of Jacksonville from the Pulaski district, an agreement based on the understanding that state money would be available to remedy poor facilities in Jacksonville, a commitment the Pulaski County school district was unable to make. The Pulaski district will seek to pass a construction bond issue next month, but it, too, expects state help.

Problems: State money is short, for everybody. The facilities fund apparently isn't sufficient to pay for money Pulaski and Jacksonville expected. Maybe in 2017, they say. Free lunch tomorrow, in other words. What's more, the state legislature has moved to encourage still more secessions of middle class neighborhoods with better facilities from the Pulaski district — Maumelle and Sherwood.

Should Pulaski let Jacksonville go if state help on facilities won't materialize and further state-encouraged damage is in the offing? Will Gov. Asa Hutchinson and the Republican legislature come up with the $60 million that some think is necessary?  Will the state, again, renege on commitments? Is there state resistance to improving facilities in the heavily minority and neglected southern part of the Pulaski District? Is Johnny Key, now the governor's man in charge of education despite a lack of formal training or experience, even conversant with the federal court imperatives in this case? Is he aware that what's left is not merely some administrative cutup of the Pulaski district, but a state commitment to facilities, achievement and disciplinary improvements?

John Walker has been taking depositions. I look forward to their release. Jacksonville's "freedom," previously understood as a given, could be imperiled by state crawfishing. And it should be. And I'm betting Jacksonville people (who live in a diverse school zone) understand the peril. Walker says, however, that they are not smart enough to abide by equal employment opportunity guidelines in hiring staff.

There's little sympathy in the federal courts these days for those who seek equal rights and affirmative action and oppose official action that promotes segregation. But the Pulaski case is a special one and has been held so even by the conservative 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Will courts look kindly on the state's plea of poverty as an excuse for an inability to deliver promised facilities support (a plea that comes on the heels of a huge tax break for multi-millionaires)? Might it also be inclined to consider along with these developments the state's removal of a majority black school board in Little Rock, its aims to privatize the majority black schools, its ham-handed refusal to listen to parents and students and other terrible judgment calls in state operation of the district?

The racism isn't so overt today in official state actions as in 1957. But you can forgive John Walker and others for seeing, to borrow a phrase, the long shadow of discrimination in Pulaski County. It might be a wasted effort, but it doesn't take much speculating to see a path to another legal claim that the actions of the state, taken together, demonstrate a continuation of the state's history of discrimination.

Friday's hearing may be nothing. It may be momentous. But the issues listed above will remain and they won't be easily solved.

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