Is LRSD Gambling with Funding? (AP Analysis)

by Kelly P. Kissel, The Associated Press  on Monday, Nov. 18, 2013 8:41 am  

LITTLE ROCK - Like any lawyer engaged in settlement talks, Attorney General Dustin McDaniel tries to get the best possible deal by casting the other side's position in the worst possible light.

If he's right, the Little Rock School District could be taking a big gamble by withholding its approval of a deal that would end years of extra state payments to boost desegregation. If he is wrong, the district's gamble could be worth it.

As it has been for more than 30 years, the state of Arkansas is engaged in a court fight with three Little Rock-area school systems that have struggled to achieve and maintain a racial balance, and since 1989, legislators have appropriated $1 billion to help fight segregation.

Now lawmakers want the payments to stop and two districts are willing to see them end after checks are cut over the next 4½ years. The Little Rock School District, which receives the biggest share of the pie, is holding out, saying it would like a group of school patrons to agree, too.

Those patrons, known as the Joshua Intervenors and represented in court by a lawyer who is also a state representative, say more must still be done to aid black students.

"These children still don't have the same opportunity and outcomes as children of the majority race," Rep. John Walker, D-Little Rock, told members of the Legislative Council.

The 1989 settlement that called on Arkansas to give the Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County Special school districts extra money to aid desegregation efforts doesn't have a sunset clause, so payments have grown to almost $70 million a year.

On the table 24 years later is a deal hammered out among lawyers for the three districts and McDaniel - four more years of payments at the current level, with the Year Four cash dedicated to academic facilities rather than integration.

Absent an agreement, the parties will be in federal court on Dec. 9 on the state's request to end the payments altogether. And that's where McDaniel believes he has a trump card.

U.S. District Judge Brian Miller, echoing sentiments rooted in previous court opinions, ordered an end to the payments in 2011. In many more words, he said the districts had figured out that, by failing to meet targets, they could still receive money - a situation he called "absurd."

The 8th Circuit overruled Miller, saying the parties hadn't had a full hearing on whether the payments should stop, but McDaniel often falls back on language from Miller's would-be order: "It seems that the State of Arkansas is using a carrot and stick approach with these districts but that the districts are wise mules that have learned how to eat the carrot and sit down on the job. ...

"The time has finally come for all carrots to be put away. These mules must now either pull their proverbial carts on their own or face a very heavy and punitive stick," Miller wrote.



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