LITTLE ROCK — A federal judge on Friday gave preliminary approval to a proposed settlement that would end two decades of state payments toward desegregation efforts in Little Rock-area schools.
U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall accepted the settlement agreement after a hearing in which attorneys for the parties — the three school districts in Pulaski County, the state attorney general’s office, the Joshua intervenors, who represent black students, and the Knight intervenors, who represent teachers and other school employees — asked the judge to approve the deal.
“The proposal shows what I believe to be hard bargaining by good and experienced lawyers,” Marshall said after a 90-minute hearing. “It does not have any hallmark of collusion or any kind of inside dealing or special dealing.”
With the initial approval of the settlement, notice of the proposed agreement will now be advertised to members of the classes represented by Joshua and Knight. Marshall said he will then conduct a fairness hearing Jan. 13-14 to hear any opposition to or support for the proposed settlement plan.
The judge said that after the fairness hearing he would issue a final ruling on the proposal.
Little Rock School District Attorney Chris Heller said later that he was pleased with the judge’s decision.
“I’m looking forward to final approval,” Heller said. “It’s good to see all the school districts and the state and Joshua intervenors and the teachers all together pulling for kids, so I think it’s a great day.”
The state has paid the Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County Special school districts $1.2 billion since 1989 to bolster desegregation programs in a case that had its origins in the 1957 Central High integration crisis.
The pact, negotiated by Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, would end state desegregation payments of nearly $70 million annually to the three districts after the 2017-18 school year and clear the way for creation of a new school district in Jacksonville. The districts would get another year of payments in 2018-19 to be used exclusively for school buildings.
The agreement includes stipulations that attorneys for the three school districts will receive $250,000 from the state, with any fees above that amount to be paid by the individual districts. It also asks the federal judge to approve $500,000 in fees for attorneys for the Joshua intervenors and $75,000 for other attorneys in the case.
Rep. John Walker, D-Little Rock, attorney for the Joshua intervenors, said during Friday’s hearing that if the districts end up returning to segregated schools after the state’s financial obligations are completed they can expect another lawsuit.
Walker said he and attorneys for the Pulaski County district are working on a separate agreement that would require the district to build facilities in the lower-income areas of the district and that the Little Rock school district must work to desegregate its magnet schools.
He noted that the Little Rock School Board voted this week to use its fourth year state payment primary on facilities in poor areas of the district.
“While we may have a dispute about that, we will be back in court in the event that those facilities are not equalized,” Walker said. “The school districts are on notice, and so is the state of Arkansas … that the court is always available for any new violations.”
Walker also said he does not particularly like the section of the agreement that would let Jacksonville detach from the Pulaski County district and create its own district. He said he agreed to it because, if a new district is formed there, it would be “basically a desegregated area.”
“Jacksonville is one of the few biracial areas in the Pulaski County Special School district,” he said.
Rep. Mark Perry, D-Jacksonville, who attended Friday’s hearing, said afterward he hopes the judge gives final approval to the plan in January and that Jacksonville residents could vote next year on whether they want to break away from the Pulaski County Special School district and form their own district.
“Hopefully, mid next year at the latest,” Perry said.