Cynthia Howell at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette broke the news Saturday that a last-minute settlement agreement has been reached between the Little Rock School District and a group of African-American plaintiffs represented by veteran civil rights attorney Rep. John Walker (D-Little Rock). Because the LRSD remains under control of the Arkansas Department of Education, the state was also named as a defendant.
Plaintiffs in the “Doe” case, which had been scheduled to go to trial on Wednesday before U.S. District Judge Price Marshall, alleged that the LRSD continues to effectively discriminate on the basis of race by providing inequitable school facilities and academic programs to black students. (Here’s a recent summation of the basis of the discrimination complaint from Arkansas Public Media.)
Under the terms of the proposed settlement, the district would be required to increase access to AP and pre-AP classes, fix various facilities issues at three predominately African-American LRSD schools, and raise parent awareness of academic offerings such as AP classes, gifted and talented programs, and Forest Heights STEM Academy.
Walker and his firm would receive $100,000 in fees and costs. The district would receive assurances that the plaintiffs will not sue again.
The two most significant requirements, though, would come with a three-year timeline attached. The district would be required to redraw its high school attendance zones by fall 2020. It would also declare a moratorium on new construction projects, including school expansions, until (1) a new high school is completed in Southwest Little Rock and (2) Cloverdale Middle School is replaced. The Southwest LR high school is planned to open in fall 2020, the document states.
The building moratorium takes aim at efforts to expand Pinnacle View, the district’s new middle school in West Little Rock, which Walker and others allege is intended to serve a whiter, more affluent population of families than the LRSD as a whole. (At one time, the lawsuit sought to enjoin the creation of the new West Little Rock middle school altogether, but Judge Marshall rejected that effort in 2016.) It should be noted that allies of Walker fought to defeat a proposed millage extension earlier this year that would have generated $160 million to accelerate the building of the Southwest Little Rock campus and allowed for facilities improvements to be made at campuses around the city, largely out of dissatisfaction with the district’s takeover by the state.
Redrawing high school attendance zones is a politically complex issue that could split supporters of the Little Rock district. Critics allege the attendance zone for Central High School is gerrymandered to allow the school to draw from a whiter, more affluent pool of households than would be the case if the zone were drawn in something like a radius around the campus. (This is a simple if uncomfortable fact, if one looks at the zone map.) Those complaints of gerrymandering have come both from left-wing activists like Walker, whose stated goal is shifting more resources to poor students and students of color, and “school choice” activists like Gary Newton, who tends to advocate shifting more resources toward whiter and more affluent neighborhoods in West Little Rock. (Central’s attendance zone excludes much of West Little Rock.)
At one time, Walker’s suit was much broader in scope and challenged the January 2015 state takeover of the LRSD, the state Board of Education’s approval of charter school expansions within Little Rock, and the LRSD’s decision to build a middle school in West Little Rock. Marshall dismissed most of those claims last year, but the facilities and program issues remained. Marshall rejected the state’s motion to dismiss in July, and the case appeared headed for trial.
The text of the proposed settlement is not yet available on the docket — Howell obtained the document with an FOIA request to the state — but attorneys for both sides filed a joint motion to dismiss the suit with prejudice on Friday. Perhaps in response to Howell’s FOIA request, the LRSD issued a press release late Friday afternoon stating that it anticipated a settlement would soon be reached and that the district would be making an official statement next week after paperwork was filed.