LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Five things to know about a federal judge's decision to end the state of Arkansas' special desegregation payments to three Little Rock-area school districts:
1. THE PAYMENTS STOP, NOT THE ISSUES
Arkansas will stop giving the Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County Special school districts extra money for magnet school programs and district-to-district transfers intended to balance the racial makeup of schools. However, a lawyer for black schoolchildren has noted that affluent and predominantly white areas of Pulaski County have new schools, while poorer and predominantly minority areas do not. And a federal judge was intrigued Monday by allegations that the state doesn't monitor whether schools are desegregated and hasn't done enough to address an achievement gap between white and black students. The Pulaski County district also hasn't been declared fully desegregated, as have the other two districts, and will remain under court control.
2. WHY WOULD THE DISTRICTS AGREE TO GIVE UP NEARLY $70 MILLION?
Going to court is a gamble. The state of Arkansas wanted to end the payments immediately, but U.S. District Judge Price Marshall said it was more appropriate to give the districts time to prepare. When they each said they had a plan in place for how to run schools without the money, Marshall said he was satisfied with ending the payments. In 2011, another federal judge had ruled to end the payments immediately but the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overruled him, saying no one had asked for that remedy. The state of Arkansas took that as a cue and filed paperwork to end the payments.
3. WON'T DISTRICTS SUFFER IF THE MONEY'S GONE?
That's not clear, because the districts will make up some of the losses elsewhere. Pulaski County Superintendent Jerry Guess testified Monday the $20 million his district receives annually is 12 percent of its budget. He anticipates receiving $4.8 million more in per-pupil spending as students return to their home district, plus $3 million in transportation costs for magnet school students and students who transfer to a district where they'd be a minority, plus money paid to Little Rock as "tuition" for magnet students from the county. With growth outside the city, Guess said it's possible the district could recover most of the $20 million over time. The other districts will save money on transportation costs and as students return the state's per-pupil spending of more than $6,000 annually will follow them home.
4. OBJECTIONS OVERULED, NOT THAT THERE WERE THAT MANY
Judge Marshall gave tentative approval to the agreement in November but directed the districts to advertise the pact and note how people could object. Six people plus an education group and the administration of the suburban city of Sherwood wrote to the judge., Of the eight complaints received, only four were backed up by testimony Monday. Marshall said most objections were "around the margins" and didn't address the heart of the agreement — ending the funding. He rejected them all.
Sherwood patrons wanted permission to set up their own local district before Pulaski County is declared desegregated. One of their representatives declared to the judge, ungrammatically: "I am a product of public education and so is my children." Under the approved settlement, nearby Jacksonville can pursue creating its own district. Its facilities are outdated and Pulaski County officials believe paring it off will benefit it by taking dilapidated schools off its books, while Jacksonville patrons can concentrate on improving them locally.
5. WHAT WILL THE SCHOOLS DO NOW?
Each district laid out specific plans for improving student achievement, even after the extra state money dries up. Little Rock, with 23,500 pupils, intends to keep its magnet schools and establish a pattern of feeder schools for each. It expects to lose students over the long haul and presented to the judge where it expects to save money with reduced obligations, particularly with fewer employees. North Little Rock, with 8,500 students, is amid an improvement project that will reduce the number of school campuses from 19 to 13 and also result in new or refurbished facilities at all of them. Pulaski County, with 17,000 students, said its biggest worry is facilities but that it could be essentially desegregated, perhaps within three years. He said Jacksonville could receive state help to build new schools, plus be in its own taxing district and not have to share revenues with the rest of the county.