United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, El Dorado Division
SUSAN O. HICKEY, District Judge.
Before the Court is Defendant Stephens School District's ("Stephens") Motion for Temporary Restraining Order and Preliminary Injunction and Petition for Judicial Review. (ECF No. 19). Also before the Court is Intervenor Arkansas State Board of Education's ("ASBE") Motion for Approval of Administrative Consolidation Order. (ECF No. 30). An evidentiary hearing on the motions was held on June 4, 2014. (ECF No. 47). After reviewing the parties' written briefs, the testimony set forth at the hearing, and all relevant exhibits, the Court finds that the ASBE's motion for approval should be granted and that Stephens's motion for preliminary injunction should be denied.
Before discussing recent events that led to the filing of the present motions, a brief overview of the history of this case is needed. This action began almost forty-five years ago with the filing of a complaint against the McNeil School District. Plaintiffs alleged that the McNeil School District was operating a dual school system based on race and color and engaging in discriminatory practices. Subsequently, the parties jointly filed a "Plan for Unification" (ECF No. 7) which was approved by this Court on January 5, 1970. (ECF No. 8). The Court retained jurisdiction over the case for the purpose of enforcing the consent decree.
The specific provisions of the 1970 unification plan and subsequent order are integral to the issues presented in this case. The plan called for complete desegregation of the Northside and Southside schools in McNeil. Northside students within walking distance to Southside were to walk to Southside so that they could then be bused to Northside, and vice versa. For students being bused in from more rural areas, the plan stated that they would be "transported on a desegregated basis." The plan also made provisions for staff assignments and specific improvements that were to be made at both campuses.
The unification plan was implemented by the McNeil School District, and this case lay dormant for thirty-four years without any complaints of non-compliance with the plan. In 2004, the case was re-opened to address the passage of Ark. Code Ann. § 6-13-1601, et seq. ("Act 60"). Act 60 required school districts with an "average daily membership" of fewer than 350 students for two consecutive years to be consolidated with or annexed to another school district. In 2004, the McNeil School District and the Stephens School District elected to voluntarily consolidate pursuant to Act 60, and this Court approved that consolidation on June 23, 2004. (ECF No. 15). At the request of Plaintiffs, and with no objection by Defendants, the Stephens School District was added as a Defendant in this case on July 14, 2004 "in order to continue this litigation." (ECF No. 17).
After the 2004 McNeil-Stephens consolidation, there was no movement in the case until this year. Once again, this movement was the result of consolidation decisions made pursuant Act 60. The Stephens School District's average daily membership had fallen below 350 students for two years in a row, thereby requiring its involuntary consolidation into another district under Act 60. On April 11, 2014, the Arkansas State Board of Education ordered the involuntary administrative consolidation of the Stephens School District with the Camden Fairview, Magnolia, and Nevada School Districts pursuant to Ark. Code Ann. § 6-13-1603 (a)(3)-(4). The consolidation is to be effective on July 1, 2014. The plan calls for the Stephens School District to be divided along county lines and consolidated with the corresponding school districts. Students living in Ouachita County will be consolidated with Camden Fairview; students living in Nevada County will be consolidated with the Nevada School District; and students living in Columbia County will be consolidated with the Magnolia School District.
While Stephens clearly meets the criteria for consolidation under Act 60, the parties feel that this Court's continuing jurisdiction over the 1970 consent decree necessitates a Court order approving the consolidation. The ASBE's present motion requests this approval. Conversely, Stephens's motion for injunctive relief requests that the Court decline to approve the consolidation and prevent the closure of the Stephens campus. The parties' motions raise the same issues and ask the Court to decide the following question: whether the consolidation of Stephens into the Camden Fairview, Magnolia, and Nevada School Districts violates the 1970 McNeil consent decree. Stephens's only argument on this point is that the proposed consolidation could result in excessive transportation time for students being bused to Camden Fairview. Stephens requests that the Court impose a maximum one-way transportation time of forty-five minutes for these students. The ASBE and Intervenors dispute Stephens's arguments that the transportation time from Stephens to Camden Fairview would be excessive. The ASBE also argues that the busing issues raised by Stephens are outside the scope of the 1970 desegregation order. The Court will address these arguments in turn.
Questions regarding the Court's jurisdiction over this proposed consolidation and the continued application of the 1970 consent decree are fairly unsettled and deserve some attention before addressing the merits of the parties' motions. The 1970 consent decree contained very specific provisions relating to a school district that no longer exists.
Because this case was not formally dismissed after the consolidation and dissolution of the McNeil School District, the parties have taken the position that the 1970 consent decree is still in effect and that the Court must approve the consolidation. This is a position shared by the Arkansas Attorney General who issued an advisory opinion directing the ASBE to seek this Court's approval of the consolidation in light of the lingering 1970 consent decree. (ECF No. 19, Exh. 4).
The Court has serious concerns about the continued applicability of a very specific consent decree directed toward a school district that has been dissolved. Nonetheless, in order to provide some much needed finality to this situation, the Court will take up the issue and assume arguendo that the consent decree is still in effect and requires this Court's approval of the consolidation.
"A party seeking modification of a consent decree must establish that a significant change in facts or law warrants revision of the decree.'" Little Rock Sch. Dist. v. Pulaski Cnty. Special Sch. Dist., No. 1, 56 F.3d 904, 914 (8th Cir. 1995) (quoting Rufo v. Inmates of Suffolk County Jail, 502 U.S. 367, 393, 112 S.Ct. 748, 764, 116 L.Ed.2d 867 (1992)). If a significant change in circumstances is shown, the Court must then determine ...