Attorney General Dustin McDaniel told a legislative committee today that the Little Rock School District had proposed a phase-out settlement of state financial support of the district under the long-running Pulaski desegregation case.
McDaniel said he deemed the proposal a “non-starter” because of conditions that would prevent the state from putting the district on “distress” status or otherwise taking retaliation against the state.
But McDaniel said the offer was a positive sign and the first settlement proposal the district had made.
This account, from John Lyon at Stephens Media, doesn’t mention a dollar amount. But an AP report said the district proposed a payment of $42.4 million a year for seven years, or almost $300 million in sum. The state has spent more than $1 billion on desegregation costs in Pulaski County since agreeing to a settlement of the lawsuit in 1989. The state admitted continuing actions to promote segregation in the district. Both Little Rock and North Little Rock have been declared desegregated and a court is considering whether to give that status to the Pulaski District. The state is currently spending about $70 million a year.
The settlement reporting doesn’t mention a key point — whether the three districts want the state to continue to support for magnet school and interdistrict transfer programs set up with state support under the settlement to promote desegregation. Little Rock has said it considers that a permanent commitment. The reporting also doesn’t mention if Little Rock wants any commitment from the state relative to creation of charter schools in the county, several of which have proven to be cost-free havens for white students seeking to avoid Little Rock school,s particularly those at the middle school level.
Also unmentioned is how a settlement offer issued forth without a specific decision on the Little Rock School Board’s part to initiate the discussion.
UPDATE: Chris Heller, attorney for the School District, has provided a copy of the settlement proposal. The news accounts — and perhaps McDaniel himself — didn’t do it justice. It proposes to drop all pending court appeals, including the challenge of the state’s approval of charter schools without regard for segregating effects. It also agrees to end the state’s commitment to magnet schools. The proposal is short, clear and simple. I repeat it on the jump.
Surely this is a ground to work from, particularly since McDaniel himself once offered money to end the case over a seven-year phaseout. The deal could save the state money in time, if not now, plus end litigation completely. That’s worth talking about.
It became clear in phone calls later that this surprise settlement offer grew out of the desire of the new superintendent Dexter Suggs to end the court fight. He initiated the talks. McDaniel said he is not unilaterally rejecting the offer. He said he wants to pursue it further, with guidance and approval from the legislature and governor. He said he has three requirements: That all three school districts participate; that the financial settlement is an amount the state can live with (he proposed $400 million four years ago and would have gone higher), and that the settlement guarantees finality. There must be no ambiguity that could put the state back in court. A non-retaliation agreement, for example, might leave the state open to a pretext to be sued over any law passed by the legislature. The state, with a constitutional commitment to equal and adequate schools, also can’t very well agree to let the district operate as a rogue state, without fear of being taken over if it doesn’t operate properly.
I think there’s room to work here. It’s a big deal. I remain curious about newbie Suggs’ muscular intervention and what the School Board might think about it.
UPDATE: School Board apparently fine with it because the district’s lawyer did a round-robin with school board members about the talks, which kept them secret from the public. From Chris Heller:
Dr. Suggs and I met with the AG and others in August to discuss in very general terms the possibility of a settlement. We left with the understanding that a specific written proposal would be considered in good faith. I talked individually with board members who said what they have said many times before publicly and privately – they believed that a reasonable settlement would be in the best interest of LRSD students. I met with Dr. Suggs and Kelsey Bailey in September to discuss a settlement proposal which Dr. Suggs had prepared and the work Mr. Bailey had done to show that LRSD could make the proposal we made and remain financially stable during and after the proposed seven year transition if the proposal were accepted. I called or met with board members individually to talk generally about a proposal which did not include continued State funding of magnet schools or limitations on charter schools. I did not ask for any commitments and asked them not to discuss this with each other until we had a substantive response from the AG to consider at a public meeting. I sent the proposal to the AG on September 27. There has been no substantive response. The proposal does not require continued State support for magnet schools or interdistrict transfers, although the recent change in the school choice law would allow interdistrict transfers to magnet and other schools. There is no restriction on charter schools in the proposal. Previous efforts to settle this case have been unsuccessful primarily because the parties have been unable to resolve magnet and charter school issues.
On the jump, too, a late comment from Board member Jody Carreiro:
LRSD’S SEPTEMBER 2013 SETTLEMENT PROPOSAL
The LRSD makes the following settlement proposal to resolve all issues between LRSD and the State of Arkansas concerning the 1989 Settlement Agreement in LRSD v. PCSSD, Case No. 4:82-cv-866-DPM, including the payments owed by the State for its breach of that Agreement with respect to teacher retirement and health insurance funding.
LRSD will dismiss all claims related to its Motion to Enforce 1989 Settlement Agreement, including its Eighth Circuit Appeal (Nos. 13-1469 and 13-1483) regarding charter school issues, and agree that the State should be released from all of its obligations to LRSD under the 1989 Settlement Agreement, in exchange for the following:
1. For a period of seven school years, beginning with the 2014-15 school year, the State will pay LRSD $42,477,941 per year. In the alternative, the State may make a lump sum payment of $297,345,585 no later than June 30, 2015.
2. The State will agree that LRSD, PCSSD and NLRSD may phase out the interdistrict magnet school program by not enrolling new interdistrict transfer students in those programs for the 2014-15 school-year and beyond.
3. The funds received by LRSD under this Agreement will not be counted as local revenue.
4. The State will not retaliate against LRSD because of this Agreement or LRSD’s role in the interdistrict litigation resolved by this Agreement. The State will allow LRSD to participate in all programs in which other school districts in the State of Arkansas are allowed to participate and to receive all payments and other benefits which other school districts in the State of Arkansas receive.
5. LRSD will not be subject to sanctions for fiscal, academic or facilities distress, and will not otherwise be taken over by the State or consolidated in whole or in part with another district or other districts without its consent, for the seven year transition period covered by this agreement.
COMMENT FROM JODY CARREIRO
Little Rock School Superintendent Dr. Dexter Suggs recently provided basic points and asked the board’s attorneys to compose a preliminary document with the goal of beginning negotiations with the Attorney General and the state regarding a desegregation settlement agreement. Dr. Suggs asked the attorneys to discuss those points with individual board members before relaying the information to the Attorney General’s office. The understanding of the board members was that if it was determined that there was a basis to begin negotiations with the state, public discussion outlining the details would be scheduled.
The ultimate consideration is always to do what is best for our students.