LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — The sides in a decades-old lawsuit involving Little Rock-area schools won preliminary approval Friday for a settlement that would bring an end to state payments that aid desegregation efforts.
The state has spent more than $1 billion since 1989 in special payments to the Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County school districts to try to bring an end to a desegregation suit filed in 1982.
Public schools in the capital city have a history of strife that dates back to the violent integration attempt in 1957 in which President Dwight Eisenhower had to send in federal troops to ensure nine black students could enter Little Rock Central High School, which is now a National Historic Site.
Lawyers for the school districts, the state and two groups of school patrons came together on a settlement that would continue state payments for four years and place requirements on the districts to better serve their black students.
Under the proposed agreement, the special payments would end with the 2017-18 school year.
Until then, annual payments of $37.3 million for Little Rock, $20.8 million for Pulaski County and $7.6 million for North Little Rock would continue. The last year of the payments would be for facilities, but could not to be used for athletics or administration buildings.
John Walker, a noted civil rights attorney who represents black school patrons known as the Joshua Intervenors, said the districts still would need supervision to ensure they are meeting their end of the bargain. He said earlier in the week that he would file another lawsuit if the Little Rock district didn't make progress.
"The only thing historic about (the proposed settlement) is that the state no longer will have to pay money after four years for trying to help these districts do what they're supposed to do," Walker said after Friday's hearing.
The agreement is not final. U.S. District Judge Price Marshall emphasized that the matter could still go to trial, and he set aside time in March in case the accord collapses.
The next step for the sides is to give notice to members of the classes affected by the settlement: patrons of the school districts and teachers. They'll have the opportunity to file comments or objections in advance of a fairness hearing, which the judge set for Jan. 13-14.
"We are not done," Marshall said. "This is not the end. But I hope this is the beginning of the end."
The fairness hearing will include any objections from affected parties and responses by the sides in the settlement. Marshall said he needs more time to decide whether to have the parties present evidence about how the settlement would work.
Marshall said his action Friday simply reflected his view that the proposed agreement fell within "the range of reasonable resolutions of this dispute."
Marshall said the point of the fairness hearing is to determine whether the settlement is "fair, reasonable and adequate," and whether it merits final approval.
The Pulaski County district still hasn't been declared desegregated by a federal judge. Marshall said he may ask at the fairness hearing for lawyers to show how the settlement would help the district toward that goal, particularly considering the agreement opens the way for a separate Jacksonville school district to be carved out.
The agreement would limit the number of students who could move to different schools. The state's new school choice law allows exceptions for districts that are or at one time were involved in desegregation litigation.
Stephen Jones, attorney for the North Little Rock School District, said limiting transfers would make the districts easier to manage.
"They (the districts) would like to have a more predictable student base (and) funding base," he said.
Much of the extra state money that flowed to the districts — a combined $70 million per year — went to magnet schools. Students now in those programs can stay and finish, but the agreement would end payments that fund extra transportation and the magnets themselves.
Walker also would drop a lawsuit over charter schools, which aren't governed by regular public school rules. Walker claims the charters operate in violation of the 1989 settlement.
The sides engaged in serious settlement talks after the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a ruling by U.S. District Judge Brian Miller that would have immediately halted state desegregation payments to the districts. The appeals court ordered a hearing, which the various parties are trying to avert by reaching a settlement.