Little Rock School District Superintendent Michael Poore made official this afternoon the news that broke on Saturday: The district has reached a settlement with a group of African-American plaintiffs represented by civil rights attorney Rep. John Walker (D-Little Rock) who alleged the LRSD continued to provide inequitable school facilities and academic programs to black students.
U.S. District Judge Price Marshall, who was to preside over the trial set to begin on Wednesday, gave his stamp of approval to the settlement today as well. His order said simply, “The Court congratulates the parties on their settlement and grants the joint motion to dismiss.”
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Flanked by district officials and attorneys for the LRSD, Poore spoke positively of the agreement. “The judge in this case asked us to work in earnest with the plaintiffs, with the opposing attorneys, to try to create a settlement that is beneficial to all, and I think that’s exactly what happened in this case,” Poore said. He said the settlement was just one of several positive developments in the LRSD, pointing to “very solid results” on the ACT Aspire — the state’s standardized test for grades 3-10 — and singling out improved scores on the writing portion of that test across every grade level. He also cited a 0.4 point improvement in ACT scores in a year in which the statewide average ACT composite score dropped by 0.8 points.
“This is a district that’s on the rise,” Poore said.
Several terms included in the settlement concern the facilities at three majority African-American campuses — Henderson and Cloverdale middle schools and McClellan High School — and Poore said the district would pay for those facilities improvements with a portion of the $90 million that will be raised from the impending sale of second-lien bonds. Voters this spring rejected Poore’s attempt to enact a more ambitious $160 million capital improvement project by means of extending the life of the district’s bonded debt. After the millage extension vote failed, the district decided to instead utilize second-lien bonds — a method of refinancing which does not require voter approval. The district should receive confirmation this week of the bond refinancing deal, Poore said.
Of that $90 million, an estimated $55 million will be used to build a new high school in Southwest Little Rock which will replace McClellan and also absorb J.A. Fair High School. Poore said the groundbreaking on the campus will occur on October 2nd, “and we can’t wait to dig dirt to start our new school in the southwest.” (He also noted that a study commissioned in 2014 — long before he was superintendent — indicated the district’s total facilities needs would cost some $300 million.)
The settlement requires the district to “implement a moratorium on new construction projects, including school expansions” until the new high school is built and Cloverdale is replaced. Cloverdale is expected to move into the old McClellan building. Poore said today that the moratorium won’t affect the district’s ongoing construction to expand its new West Little Rock middle school, Pinnacle View, to include 8th grade next school year. (The school currently houses grades 6 and 7.) Poore also acknowledged the district does not yet have a means of remodeling McClellan to house the new Cloverdale, but noted that that project couldn’t begin until 2020 anyway. “We … have a number of years to get there … and at that time we will hopefully have a financial solution to move forward,” he said.
The other major piece of the settlement concerns adjustments to the attendance zone boundaries of the district’s high schools. Poore said that’s a natural outgrowth of building a new high school which will absorb the student bodies of McClellan and Fair: “As you condense and put two schools into one, you obviously have to do that.” He also noted that some 300 students from southwest Little Rock, which is home to a large Latino population, are currently bused across town to Hall High, which houses the district’s Newcomer Center for English-language learners in high school. Upon completion of the new campus in 2020, “those students will go back into the southwest and no longer have to ride buses for 30 and 45 minutes at a time,” he said. (Deputy Superintendent Marvin Burton said later that the Newcomer Center should remain intact at Hall, with a satellite program to be implemented at the future high school.)
Poore said of the boundary adjustments, “we’ll look at it as a whole school district … I’ve lived through boundary adjustments, and they’re not an easy thing to do, especially on the high school level.” He said that the district will “make it a community process” but acknowledged that “there will probably be some people who won’t like whatever boundary adjustment we come forward with.”
Asked specifically whether the district’s attendance zone for Central High School will shift, Poore said that “it’ll be included in the whole package of looking at it … [but] I don’t anticipate having major adjustments to the Central boundary.” He also said there was no plan to redraw middle school attendance zone boundaries at this time.
The superintendent said the LRSD’s academic gains came despite the budget reductions as a result of a loss of state desegregation payments. “It says so much about what our people are committed to … and also what our community is committed to,” he said. However, it’s too soon to tell whether any of the three schools that remain on the “academic distress” list — which prompted the state to take over the LRSD in 2015 — might be moved off of that list, as it’s derived from three years worth of testing data. Because the state recently shifted from one standardized test (the PARCC exam) to the ACT Aspire, establishing a benchmark for academic distress the state Education Department to formulate a metric to compare the two disparate exams. Poore said the metric should be available before the end of the calendar year, or soon after.
Here’s a sheet distributed by the district showing the breakdown of planned capital improvement projects:
And here’s the settlement itself: