So much for a school settlement in Pulaski County | Arkansas Blog

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

So much for a school settlement in Pulaski County

Posted By on Tue, Jul 18, 2017 at 7:46 AM

JERRY GUESS: Says board has lost confidence in him and attorney.
  • JERRY GUESS: Says board has lost confidence in him and attorney.
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette's Cynthia Howell got the scoop on what appears to be coming upheaval in the Pulaski County School District along with the likely end of any chance of a speedy resolution of school desegregation issues in Pulaski County.

Howell obtained Guess' response to Pulaski County School Board unhappiness since announcement last Friday for the potential of a speedy settlement of remaining issues to have the district declared unitary or desegregated, at which point discussions might begin on realignment of the boundaries of the school district, which now forms a doughnut in the county around Little Rock and North Little Rock districts, plus the recently carved-out Jacksonville District.

The district's lawyer in desegregation matters, Allen Roberts of Camden, signed on to a proposal in an unrelated civil rights case over facilities in the Little Rock School District that prompted Judge Price Marshall to delay a trial this week in the interest of settling that case and perhaps the separate Pulaski desegregation case in 60 days.

Some School Board members are not happy with Guess or the lawyers or rapid movement that could lead to a change in the shape of the district. As a result, Guess wrote an email that Howell obtained that said he and Roberts had lost confidence of the school board and would leave if directed. No School Board meeting has been set. I'd say the vote is split along roughly 4-3 lines. Tremendous pressure being applied on Brian Maune, who represents the western reaches of Little Rock. People in that part of town aren't happy about the thought of joining the Little Rock School District some day.

It looks more and more like a strong sentiment on the Pulaski County board to STAY IN the desegregation lawsuit, because leaving court would put the state Board of Education in charge of boundary issues. That's OK with some, not with others, particularly those hoping to avoid fellowshipping with the majority black Little Rock School District, which city policy allowed the western expansion territory to evade years ago. The Board's recent decision to reject Guess' appointment of a highly qualified former school superintendent to a top administrative position is apparently linked to a belief that because the candidate is black she's somehow John Walker's choice for the job.

Guess was appointed superintendent during state receivership. He righted the district's financial problems. He's made strides toward erasing the final vestiges of racial discrimination, though staffing and facilities don't yet have the court seal of approval.  He recently led a successful tax election that provided money for a new high school in Sherwood.

The new school board has resisted some of Guess' personnel moves. And it has bridled at Guess' delegation of duties to the attorneys. The Guess administration has also won some enemies for its willingness to work with Little Rock civil rights lawyer John Walker.  This has particularly angered the Walmart-paid charter school lobby and corporate interests that financed a slate of winning candidates in the first elections after local control was returned. The Walton lobby is mad at Guess for not participating in interdistrict school transfers while still enmeshed in a desegregation case, as the law allows.

Boundaries are a sensitive topic. Guess says the district is fine the way it is. But he notes the state Board of Education's belief, as expressed in a resolution, that boundaries should be redrawn to reflect communities of interest once the desegregation case is over. That means a single district south of the Arkansas River, combining Little Rock with portions of far west and southeast Pulaski County. North of the river, it could mean one district or as many as four if Sherwood and Maumelle were to achieve separate status along with North Little Rock and Jacksonville, as at least some in both communities desire.

The chance of a speedy workout of anything involving John Walker was always a longshot, particularly given that has gone around would be to cede Chenal Valley territory to Pulaski County and have Little Rock take in only the heavily minority regions of the southeast portion of the county.  That would create a new Little Rock district, eligible to be removed from state control, that likely would have a majority black school board. The idea is a non-starter for a number of reasons, beginning with practicality of the Chenal island south of the river. The state Board would never approve such a boundary.

Given today's development, I'd say just about everything is a non-starter: Settlement of the Little Rock discrimination case (which will go to trial in September if there is no settlement); a speedy settlement of the Pulaski desegregation case; discussion of realignment of the Pulaski district, something that should have been done 30 years ago if only federal Judge Henry Woods' order for a two-district solution had prevailed.

If the Pulaski Board sends Guess packing I think they'll have a hard time readily finding someone as capable or as well-versed in the difficult school politics in Pulaski County. Recent indications have been a little troubling, particularly the board's rejection of Guess personnel appointments aimed at resolving one of the key issues remaining in federal court oversight of the district.

I'd heard rumblings about this over the weekend. Guess clearly has opposition from a Maumelle board member and reportedly the new member from the Chenal area was unhappy about recent court developments. Too bad. A district south of the river, with the huge construction project underway at Joe T. Robinson, would produce a unified district south of the river that includes a new high school for the western portion of the Little Rock District.

With school to start in a month it's no time for a new administrative and legal team that faces a learning curve. The resistance to progress and positive movement tells you a lot about what the Pulaski district is the last of three in the county still under federal court supervision.

UPDATE: Following is Guess' communication to the board in full:

From: "GUESS, JERRY"
Date: July 17, 2017 at 2:10:27 PM CDT
To: BOARD MEMBERS , CABINET , PRINCIPALS
Subject: Response to Comments regarding Doe v. LRSD

To: Members of the Board, Cabinet, and Principals:

Due to the controversy that erupted late last week in connection with the Doe v. LRSD lawsuit, I feel that it is necessary for me to issue a statement of explanation.

First, it is important to remember that PCSSD has not yet agreed to anything other than to attempt to negotiate unitary status in facilities, student achievement, and discipline. We have a 60 day window to reach an agreement with John Walker on all three subject areas. If prior negotiations are indicative, and they are, this will be no small feat.

As superintendent, it is my job to accomplish the board’s objectives as they are determined by a majority of board members. It is the superintendent’s responsibility – not individual board members’ – to make the decisions necessary to accomplish those objectives. In directing my attorneys to work with John Walker and attorneys for the State and LRSD to get a continuance in the Doe lawsuit, I was attempting to accomplish the board’s directive to achieve unitary status in the long-running desegregation case. In my previous discussions with board members, I conveyed my belief that this would be a lengthy process, between 1-2 years, due to the complexity of the remaining issues – facilities, student achievement, and discipline – and John Walker’s continued insistence that we were not unitary in those areas. In other words, it was the lawyers’ opinion that all three subjects would require contested trials. Considering Judge Marshall’s crowded schedule, preparation time, and actual trial, it would take a minimum of six months per issue — a total of at least 18 months.

Mr. Walker’s newfound openness to engage in discussions presented a unique opportunity for the district, in my opinion, and one with a rapidly closing window for seizing. I cannot, and will not, solicit the opinion of every board member at every point a decision must be made. Of course, Mr. Walker had to believe he had something to gain. It appeared to us that something was return to local control for LRSD.

Since return to an elected school board for LRSD was in no way a negative for PCSSD, I directed the district’s desegregation lawyers, Allen Roberts and Whitney Moore, to do whatever was needed to get the trial in the Doe case continued so that we could begin negotiating unitary status in the remaining areas. Their judgment, with which I agree, was that a continuance would not have been granted in that trial without an express statement to Judge Marshall that PCSSD was open to entering negotiations and considering alterations to its boundaries.

Additionally, it is my firm belief that the State Board of Education fully intends to dismantle PCSSD as soon as it is declared unitary, with the likely creation of one district south of the river, the annexation of Shannon Hills to Bryant, and the creation of single districts for the cities of Maumelle and Sherwood. This belief is based on two facts - one, the SBE is the entity with the legal power to change school district boundaries and two, the SBE’s unanimous adoption in June 2015 of a report that recommends the dissolution of PCSSD along the lines described above “if and when SBE’s powers over district lines in Pulaski County are restored.” (See SBE Report, page 5). A copy of this report is attached for your information.

I believe the district can succeed as it stands currently; indeed, two years ago I spoke against the SBE’s “South Pulaski district” approach to no avail. However, I do not believe the SBE’s quest to change our boundaries can be stopped. I also believe that a substantial number of the district’s citizens would support these boundary changes, with a majority of those persons residing in Sherwood and Shannon Hills but a significant number in Maumelle as well. I do not mean to ignore the substantial opposition the boundary changes would likely elicit in the Robinson and Sweet Home communities; I am simply stating that those communities would be in the minority if the question of changing boundaries was put to a vote.

The choice, then, is between getting unitary sooner and facing the SBE’s music, or delaying unitary status in order to keep the district’s boundaries intact for a short while longer. My opinion is that achieving unitary status is the foremost concern of this district and cannot be intentionally delayed. My responsibility to the students, parents, and employees of this district, after 35 years of litigation, is to return them to normal operations, i.e., without court supervision or monitoring by the Joshua intervenors, as soon as humanly possible.

The opportunity presented by the Doe case also gives PCSSD a seat at the table, which allows us to exercise some control over any changes to our boundaries and the resulting impact on our employees and students. I do not believe that luxury will be afforded us if we achieve unitary status without a deal with the State already in place.

Remember, John Walker and LRSD did not BOTH express an interest in meeting our condition until a week before the July 18 trial date for Doe. Nevertheless, I met with as many board members who would and could take the time to meet with me last week. At the same time, I directed the attorneys to vigorously pursue these negotiations. They succeeded. If it is not the will of the board to end the 35-year-old lawsuit as soon as possible, then a majority of board members should have said that when we discussed the issue during those meetings, or they should say it now.

Having said all of that, it is clear to me that this cannot go on as it is. The board has lost confidence in me and my lawyers of choice. A school district cannot operate successfully without the school board having confidence in its superintendent. Once the board tells me to go, Allen and Whitney will, of course, go with me. I will continue to work in the best interests of the district, particularly its students and employees. And when the board sends me home I’m willing, if and when asked, to come in during the following six months to help you find my successor, as well as helping that successor become oriented and make the transition.


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