Thursday, March 24, 2016

Judge Marshall denies injunction to block new West Little Rock middle school

Posted By on Thu, Mar 24, 2016 at 12:45 AM

SOON TO BE A MIDDLE SCHOOL: The Leisure Arts buildings in West Little Rock. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • BRIAN CHILSON
  • SOON TO BE A MIDDLE SCHOOL: The Leisure Arts buildings in West Little Rock.

After a two day hearing, U.S. District Judge Price Marshall ruled late this afternoon against a request for a preliminary injunction that would have blocked the Little Rock School District's plans to open a new middle school in West Little Rock. The plaintiffs, a group of African American parents and students represented by lawyers including Rep. John Walker, argued that by building a new school in a mostly white and affluent area of town, the LRSD was effectively declaring that project a higher priority than school facilities needs in majority-black neighborhoods. The plans therefore indicated ongoing racial bias in the district, Walker said. The judge disagreed.

The decision means LRSD Superintendent Baker Kurrus' timetable for converting the former Leisure Arts office building near the Cantrell Road / Chenal Parkway intersection into a placeholder sixth grade campus in time for the 2016-17 school year can proceed as planned. An adjacent warehouse will be renovated simultaneously and will eventually house a permanent middle school.

The district hopes to close on the property as soon as possible, Kurrus told reporters after the court adjourned — perhaps this week or next.

The plaintiffs request for an injunction originally included a second issue, the potential shuttering of 10 schools in the LRSD in majority black neighborhoods. But during his closing arguments, Walker told the judge that that question was no longer relevant, since Kurrus said while on the witness stand earlier in the day that the LRSD had no plans to close any existing schools this year or during the 2016-17 school year. (Kurrus has made those statements previously, though not while under oath.)

The plaintiffs specifically objected to the use of desegregation settlement funds to build the West Little Rock campus, since they maintain establishing a new school at the "geographic extremity" of the district in a majority-white area would have the effect of increasing de facto racial segregation overall. Chris Heller, an attorney for the LRSD, stated in his closing arguments that that argument was moot as well, because the superintendent had indicated none of the money received by the district in its final years of deseg payments will be used for the Leisure Arts building. 

"The court approved the settlement agreement that’s really at the core of this discussion," Heller said, "and the only restriction [on use of the desegregation funds] is that the $37 million, approximately, that comes to LRSD from the state in the 2017-18 school year is required to be used for facilities. There’s no other limitations anywhere. Mr. Kurrus testified that the West Little Rock school will be completed without the use of those funds."

Despite Marshall's denial of the injunction itself, Walker indicated after the hearing that he saw at least a partial victory in the fact that on both of those issues — not closing existing schools in 2016-17, and not using the final desegregation payments for the West Little Rock school — the superintendent is now on the record before Judge Marshall. Indeed, in his remarks, Marshall emphasized that, "Mr. Kurrus has testified that that money is earmarked for the Southwest Little Rock high school. That’s a big chunk of that project, and three cheers for doing that."

The LRSD is pursing plans to build a new high school in Southwest Little Rock — which is mostly lower-income and comprised of largely minority neighborhoods — at the same time that it's working on the West Little Rock middle school. Kurrus said after the hearing that "we’re going full throttle on both of these projects … we need them both, desperately." The superintendent has said that the West Little Rock school is opening sooner than the Southwest campus only because of the unusual deal offered by the sale of the Leisure Arts buildings, one of which can be opened as a school for sixth graders by the coming fall semester; in contrast, the Southwest campus must be built from scratch. The plaintiffs, however, see the accelerated timetable for the West Little Rock school as more evidence that Kurrus and the district prioritize white students above black students.

They repeatedly pointed to Southwest Little Rock's Cloverdale Middle School, a building with a slew of problems that was identified as by the district's facilities consultant as the one facility in "critical" condition. Cloverdale is also one of the five LRSD campuses declared to be in "academic distress" for low student achievement. Much of the testimony yesterday centered on the condition of the facilities there. Today, Walker called the conditions at Cloverdale "dismal," a characterization Kurrus disputed. The building housing is not ideal, the superintendent acknowledged, but it is "clean" and "serviceable." The district plans to move Cloverdale to the building currently housing McClellan high school after the new Southwest high school is completed and after the McClellan building is renovated. Walker argued that Cloverdale students can't wait that long, considering it may be years before the new high school is built. 

In his closing arguments, Walker asked the judge to "order that Cloverdale be closed and that they be assigned to some facility while Cloverdale is being rebuilt on a suitable site." One possibility, the attorney suggested: If the West Little Rock school must be built, why not assign Cloverdale students to that campus? Walker told me after the hearing that he'll be pressuring the state to do just that in the coming months. "You can rest assured that we’ll have a number of students from Southwest Little Rock who will be seeking to enroll in that school," he said.

(Walker also raised another point of interest in his closing arguments: the suspicion that the LRSD is contemplating one day building a high school at the Leisure Arts building as well. "The plan is not being fully disclosed" regarding the Leisure Arts buildings, Walker said, considering the 70,000 square foot office building and the 170,000 square foot warehouse together comprise a complex that is "twice the size of McClellan High School." Kurrus has previously said the office building will eventually be used for administrative space when the middle school is fully constructed.)

Marshall did not order Cloverdale closed, saying "there is nothing so terribly wrong within those schools [Cloverdale and other schools south of I-630] that would justify this court’s intervention. I suppose this means that I agree, Mr. Kurrus, with your characterization of them as 'serviceable,' as opposed, Mr. Walker, to your view of them as 'dismal.' I have no doubt they need to be improved … but in terms of an immediate and pressing situation to close Cloverdale and move those students, the proof has not borne that out."

The judge said he denied the motion for an injunction largely because the plaintiffs — that is, the African American students — had not shown they would suffer "irreparable harm" from the West Little Rock school's opening, while the LRSD would in fact suffer "significant" injury from a delay, just at a time when it is showing promise. 

"I believe there’s the prospect of losing the Leisure Arts building … [and] the disruption to the lives of the students and the parents who are planning to go to school there. I also credit Mr. Kurrus’ testimony … [about] the district’s reputation, the momentum that is building towards renovating an LRSD that can serve all of the children, whatever their race may be. So I believe that balance weighs."

Marshall noted that the district's estimates say the new West Little Rock middle school won't be majority white. It will be about 40 percent white and 40 percent black, with the balance being children of other races.

"That is a mosaic," the judge said. "For those that believe that is what we should aspire to, I don’t know how much closer to attaining that goal of diversity we’re going to get than that. I understand, Mr. Walker. I hear you on what I’ll call the location issue … as to where this school is going to be, physically. But, when I look at the maps … what I see is that the new school drawing students from all over the city, and being a melting pot, and so this is why the court has expressed some skepticism [to plaintiffs]."  (It should be noted that the overall percentage of black students in the LRSD as a whole is far larger, around 66 percent.)

"Mr. Walker is right about there being a public interest in having an equal education for all children … but this city and this school district need renovation, and need a new birth, if you will, and I must say that I am hopeful after hearing what has been said here in the court these past few days, that that is a prospect under Mr. Kurrus’ leadership."

Judge Marshall emphasized that this decision doesn't affect the other "slices" of the lawsuit. The plaintiffs are also challenging the state Board of Education's takeover of the LRSD in January 2015 and seeking to enjoin the expansion of charter schools within the district's footprint. Those questions are yet to be addressed.

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