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School Desegregation Settlement Gets Preliminary Approval

Chris Heller
Michael Hibblen

A federal judge has given preliminary approval for a settlement to resolve the long-running desegregation case involving central Arkansas school districts.

During Friday’s hearing, U.S. District Judge Price Marshall questioned representatives of all parties involved, then called it a “fair, reasonable and adequate” proposal.

“It shows hard bargaining with no hallmarks of inside dealing,” Marshall said as he granted the approval.

“I think it’s a good day for everybody,” Little Rock School District attorney Chris Heller said afterward. “I’m looking forward to a final approval. It’s good to see all the districts and the state, Joshua Interveners and the teachers all together, pulling for kids.”

The deal allows those involved to avoid a two week hearing next month for the judge to consider the state’s request to immediately be removed from the 1989 settlement. Arkansas has been giving about $70 million a year to the Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County districts since 1989.

Under the new agreement, the state would pay about $65 million to the districts for the next three years, then pay to repair dilapidated facilities in the fourth year.

“For my district, it eliminates a lot of uncertainty,” Heller said, “because we’ve had this litigation pending for years and you’ve seen before where a federal court has said that funding would stop immediately. This puts our district in control. They can plan for the future of these kids, they can make a transition concerning the magnet schools and work with the other districts and the state cooperatively.”

Attorney and state Rep. John Walker of Little Rock.
Credit Michael Hibblen / KUAR
Arkansas Rep. John Walker, who represents Joshua Interveners, talks to reporters while leaving the federal courthouse after Friday's hearing.

State Rep. John Walker is an attorney for Joshua Interveners, which advocates on behalf of kids from poorer neighborhoods. He reluctantly went along with the agreement, saying it was better than leaving it in the hands of the judge.

“It’s better for us to agree if we can than for the court to decide. It’s not desirable, in my opinion, for us to continue to go down the path that we have gone for years more,” Walker said. “What we’re looking for is some degree of certainty and specificity so that children can finally really achieve well and be relieved of some of the oppressive burdens they now face.”

A key concern for Walker is that Jacksonville could be allowed to create its own school district, which could prompt other communities to also leave the Pulaski County Special School District.

“If you have a Sherwood district and a Chenal district and a Maumelle district, what you’ll have is socio-economic desegregation, the kind of which is just not beneficial to anybody,” Walker said. “I don’t think rich people benefit by staying among rich people, nor do poor people benefit by staying among poor people. We are all a melting pot theoretically and that pot has to have an opportunity to melt.”

Judge Marshall scheduled a “fairness hearing” for Jan. 2 and 3 to take comments from the public and parents. If he doesn’t find any problems, final approval could be granted then.

Michael Hibblen was a journalist for KUAR News from May 2009 — December 2022. During his final 10 years with the station, he served as News Director. In January 2023, he was hired by Arkansas PBS to become its Senior Producer/ Director of Public Affairs.
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