As I wrote earlier, the legislature’s joint desegregation committee heard Attorney General Dustin McDaniel outlined this afternoon a proposed settlement of the 32-year-old Pulaski County desegregation case with a four-year payout to the three Pulaski public school districts of about $270 million, at $65 million a year.
One problem: The Joshua intervenors, the black families in the county represented by Rep. John Walker, are not yet part of the agreement, which was to be reviewed by the Little Rock and North Little Rock school boards at special meetings this evening. If they approve as expected, the Legislative Council could have a deal to consider at 9 a.m. Friday. (UPDATE: Both school boards approved the settlement, subject to its being joined by the Joshua intervenors.)
Except for Walker. And I think it’s a long shot he’ll be on board by that early tomorrow. McDaniel has won broad legislative support for his idea from both Republicans and Democrats, it would appear from a sampling of legislative sentiment.
Walker told the committee, however, that his end of the bargain was “bogged down.” He disputed McDaniel’s assertion that the case could be settled around him as had been done in Kansas City when one party objected. There are important differences here, which Chris Heller, attorney for the Little Rock School District, acknowledged after the subcommittee meeting.
While the state and the three school districts (Pulaski is currently under state Education Department control) can agree to end litigation, it seems doubtful that they can settle the pending question of whether the Pulaski district has yet cured deficiencies related to discrimination in discipline and special education and facilities. Indeed, the proposed settlement, with a fourth year of the payout dedicated to facilities only, is anticipated to help address the woeful state of some Pulaski schools, particularly in the heavily black southeastern part of the county.
The subcommitttees made no recommendation on the proposal. Sen. Johnny Key said he didn’t believe the law required legislative advice on a settlement, under terms of the 1989 agreement. Others said while advice was allowed, it wasn’t required. Discussion went on for more than two hours, with a number of black legislators reminding the committee of the state’s actions that prompted the lawsuit and voicing of more than a few complaints that all the money had not yet produced the desired aims of equalizing opportunity, whatever the courts might have said about unitary status in Little Rock and North Little Rock. Sens. Linda Chesterfield and Joyce Elliott, particularly, noted that lingering vestiges of discrimination in conditions of schools across southern Arkansas. And, after Sen. Missy Irvin extolled the achievments of people in poverty in the white school districts in her district, Elliott pointedly noted that it was still different to be poor and black in America than poor and white.
In addition to money, the districts would release the state from all claims and agree that the state may authorize the creation of a Jacksonville school district. This is one sticking point for Walker. He thinks the district can be created without stipulation in the settlement and perhaps should be. But he said it was bad precedent for the state to give backing to proliferation of school districts where it once had said larger districts were more efficient. He and others fear it will lead to splinter movements in Maumelle and Sherwood.
McDaniel explained that the bargaining had arrived at adding a fourth year at $65 million dedicated to a specific use, to address the long unhappiness in some parties that the past desegregation money was used for general purposes in the school district. The districts had started out asking for seven years. McDaniel had initially offered a bit more than a year.
McDaniel said he thought the settlement was all but completed until a few minutes before the meeting, when he heard Walker’s separate talks with the Pulaski County School District were foundering. Under the settlement, all parties would settle, but Walker would be left to negotiate with Pulaski County separately on its attaining “unitary,” or desegregated status. McDaniel indicated that Walker wanted something in the neighborhood of $30 million directed at specific benefits for black students.
Walker apparently wants assurances that the Pulaski district will meet obligations on equal treatment of students and facilities and the money set asides include money for scholarship help. But Walker also is pressing for some continued supervision of the county in meeting its obligations, a condition that would seem to be apart from the goal of putting the litigation totally behind the state.
The agreement would phase out the magnet school and minority-to-majority transfer programs, though the districts might attempt to continue them individually. Walker pointed out that an end to transportation support for the transfers would make it impossible for poor students in Little Rock to reach students they now attend in Sherwood and Crystal Hill.
The districts would agree to participation in transfer programs, but within caps.
The settlement also makes some provisions for legal fees — $250,00 for each school district and a “reasonable” fee for Walker’s team. Critics have grumbled that Walker was holding out for a payday. He said he’d rejected a $500,000 offer from McDaniel not because he had a specific amount in mind but because he wanted to first settle the remaining Pulaski County issues and then negotiate a fee. McDaniel said the best course, he decided, was to settle the case and let a federal judge set a fee for Walker as a prevailing lawyer under normal court procedure. He said it could be more or less than what a settlement might produce.