Judge denies injunction to block transfers from Blytheville district


LITTLE ROCK — A federal judge refused to temporarily block the Blytheville School District from opting out of the state’s new school choice law for the upcoming school year until a lawsuit challenging the action can be considered.

U.S. District Kristine Baker issued a ruling late Monday, questioning the merits of the lawsuit.

The attorney for parents and grandparents of children in the district had sought a preliminary injunction that would allowed transfers to proceed this fall, arguing at a hearing last week that children would suffer hardships otherwise because they would not be able to go to school in another district for the 2013-2014 school year.

“The court has no doubt that plaintiffs will suffer the harm and hardships about which they testified at the hearing. But federal courts cannot remedy every harm or hardship,” Baker wrote in her 25-page ruling. “In this case, the court finds the plaintiffs have a low probability of succeeding on the merits of their claims and have not demonstrated the threat of irreparable harm sufficient for this court to grant plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction.”

The lawsuit, filed May 20 in U.S. District Court in Little Rock, alleges the Blytheville district has denied the constitutional rights of students by opting out of Act 1227 of this year, which removes race as a factor in determining whether students can transfer from one school district to another. The state asked the judge to dismiss the case.

After the hearing last week, Baker affirmed the right of parents and grandparents of children in district to sue the district. Jess Askew, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, also argued the school board’s decision to opt out of the new law “destroyed the hopes , goals and purposes of these fine people who want to improve the community and the options for their children.”

He said because the governor signed the measure into law in mid-April, the April 1 deadline in the law for school districts to opt out of its provisions does not take effect until 2014, so the district has no authority to prevent the transfer requests this fall.

Jay Bequette, the school district’s attorney, argued that the state Department of Education gave districts until May 17 to declare their intentions for the 2013-2014 school year, and that the district met the law’s opt-out requirement.

Act 1227 replaced the 1989 Public School School Choice Act that a federal judge in Little Rock struck down last year because it contained a race restriction on student transfers, which the judge said violated the 14th Amendment guarantee of equal protection under the law.

The decision has been appealed to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis.

Act 1227 allows districts under desegregation orders to opt out out of the new law. Blytheville was one of 22 school districts that notified the state Department of Education of plans to do so.

The district told the Education Department it was under two federal mandates, a desegregation order from 1978 and a Voting Civil Rights Act case from 1996. The district’s notice to the Education Department also cited the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown V. Board of Education, which ended racial segregation in public schools and served as the foundation for desegregation.