LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — An agreement awaiting a federal judge's final approval soon could end one of the nation's most historic desegregation efforts following decades of court battles and $1 billion of special aid to Little Rock-area schools.
Lawyers and patrons this week will pick apart details of a proposed settlement among three school districts, state lawyers and others involved in the case to determine if it is fair. Unless U.S. District Judge Price Marshall finds fault with the deal, for the first time in more than a quarter century the state no longer will be required to make extra payments to help fund racial integration of schools.
In November, Marshall gave tentative approval to a plan that would end the state's payments within four years. However, he will hear formal arguments Monday and Tuesday on whether to officially end the dispute that has roots in the Central High School desegregation fight 56 years ago.
"I grew up in Arkansas; I remember the 1957 crisis," said Jerry Guess, the superintendent of the Pulaski County Special School District. "I believe all of this is entwined and I believe this is an important moment in education in Arkansas."
Little Rock was the scene of the nation's first major desegregation battle when President Dwight Eisenhower used federal troops to escort nine black schoolchildren into Central High School, the city system's flagship school. Court cases involving desegregation have been in place during most years since then.
The Little Rock School District sued the state and the Pulaski County Special and North Little Rock districts in 1982, saying their policies had created a racial imbalance among schools countywide. Under terms of a 1989 settlement, the state of Arkansas agreed to give the districts extra money to boost desegregation efforts, including adding magnet schools and allowing student transfers.
Under the proposed settlement, payments that total nearly $70 million a year now would end in four years. Funds in the final year must be used to improve facilities. Without the settlement, the districts risk having payments stopped immediately, which almost happened two years ago.
U.S. District Judge Brian Miller, who has since recused himself from the case, attempted to cut off the funding, saying the districts had become accustomed to the money and benefited more if they didn't fully comply with the settlement.
"It seems that the State of Arkansas is using a carrot and stick approach with these districts but that the districts are wise mules that have learned how to eat the carrot and sit down on the job," Miller wrote in 2011. The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned him, saying no one had asked for the payments to end.
Taking that as a clue, the state petitioned to end the payments.
Marshall cannot modify the terms of the agreement; his role is only to approve or not approve it. If the agreement reached among the parties falls apart, a trial on the state's request is set for March.
Aaron Sadler, a spokesman for Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, said he doubted any objections raised would "impair approval of the settlement."
John Walker, a state representative and noted civil rights attorney who also represents black schoolchildren as intervenors, said he also sees no reason the judge would disapprove.
"Factually, nothing has changed since the last hearing," Walker said.
Under the proposed agreement, students currently attending schools out of their home districts would be allowed to continue their studies without having to transfer back.
School patrons in Sherwood, a small city north of North Little Rock, have criticized plans to let the nearby Jacksonville area secede from the Pulaski County district while Sherwood cannot until the judge declares the district officially desegregated, or unitary.
Pulaski County's unitary status has been held up by shortcomings in facilities, discipline, scholarships and student achievement, according to recent court documents.
"That does not offer us a ray of hope. ... We've been in this court case for 30 years," said Linda Remele, a retired teacher and administrator who backs a separate district for Sherwood and has filed a written objection to the court.
However, the rest of the settlement does not necessarily signal an end to discrimination in the schools, he said.
"The only thing historic about (the 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, pledging to file another lawsuit if the districts falter.
But Walker said a new suburban high school illustrates the continuing problem for black children. The new high school is in heavily-white Maumelle, and a shiny new middle school in Little Rock is in the Chenal neighborhood, among the wealthiest enclaves in the state.
"The idea has to be that the intended beneficiaries (of the settlement) have their issues addressed," Walker said. "Poor sections of the districts, including Jacksonville, are underserved."