United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, El Dorado Division
SUSAN O. HICKEY, District Judge.
Before the Court is Defendant Hamburg School District's ("HSD") Motion to Approve Closure of the Wilmot Elementary School Campus and to Modify Gifted and Talented Requirements. (ECF No. 90). Plaintiffs have filed a response (ECF No. 93) and the Hamburg School District has filed a reply. (ECF No. 95). The parties were allowed to conduct discovery on the issues raised in the motion. (ECF Nos. 88, 111 & 120). A hearing on the motion was held on April 27-28, 2015 (ECF Nos. 134-135), and the parties have submitted post-hearing briefs. (ECF Nos. 137, 139-140). The Court finds this matter ripe for consideration. For the reasons set forth below, the Court finds that the motion should be granted.
This action was filed by Plaintiffs on April 8, 1988. The Complaint raised the following concerns about the Hamburg School District: (1) the low number of African-American administrators, teachers, and coaches in the district resulting from discriminatory recruitment and hiring practices (¶ 6, 15); (2) the election of school board members on an at-large basis (¶ 7); (3) the segregation of African-American and Caucasian students resulting from standardized testing for class placement (¶ 8); (4) a racial imbalance at Wilmot Elementary resulting from the district's decision to allow students from the Wilmot attendance zone to attend Hamburg schools (¶ 9); (5) the disproportionate assignment of African-American students to special education classes, and the disproportionate assignment of Caucasian students to Gifted and Talented classes (¶ 10); (6) student discipline imposed on a racially discriminatory basis (¶ 11-12); and (7) the disproportionate number of African-American children held back in the first grade (¶ 13-14). Plaintiffs requested both injunctive relief and damages based on the above allegations.
The issues raised in the Complaint were resolved by two Orders of this Court entered on August 1, 1991 and September 23, 1991. By agreement of the parties, the August 1991 Order (ECF No. 48) mandated that the Hamburg School District be divided into seven single-member zones for purposes of electing school board members. By further agreement of the parties, a Consent Order was entered on September 23, 1991. (ECF No. 49). This Consent Order disposed of the remaining issues raised in the Complaint as follows. First, the Consent Order mandated the creation of a "Bi-Racial Committee" whose purpose would be to "consider special problems in the district especially as they relate to racial issues, and report to the board with their recommendations for policy changes and solutions." Second, the Order required the school district to "establish appropriate alternative school educational programs for students who are deemed to be in need of disciplinary treatment" and "provide equal educational facilities for those students." Third, the Order required the school district to "make concerted efforts to recruit additional black staff" in order to "eliminate any racial disparity among its staff." Fourth, the Order required the school district to "faithfully adhere to its attendance zones for all school facilities and for all students regardless of race.... [S]tudents whose natural parents reside in the District... shall attend school in the attendance zone in which their natural parents reside[.]" Fifth, the Consent Order addressed the issue of the Wilmot Elementary School campus as it related to the Hamburg School District's Gifted and Talented Program. It is this portion of the Consent Order that is most vital to the issues raised in the present motion. The Consent Order stated in relevant part:
Beginning with the 1991-1992 school year and continuing thereafter, all Gifted and Talented Programs for elementary students, run by the district, will be held exclusively at the Wilmot [Elementary] School. A number of educational and desegregative benefits will flow from this arrangement. By locating this program in the Wilmot School, many black elementary students will be relieved of some of the disparate burden of busing/travel which could attend their education in the higher grades since Wilmot does not have an education presence beyond the 6th grade. Additionally, because of the special opportunities offered through G&T, white and black students from throughout the district will be encouraged to attend the Wilmot facility. The resulting influx of white and black students from throughout the district for gifted and talented programs will tend to desegregate the educational experience at Wilmot.
The Consent Order was silent on the logistics of how the GT program was to be set up at Wilmot. In accordance with the mandate regarding strict adherence to attendance zones and state guidelines for conducting elementary GT programs, the HSD implemented a "pull-out" GT program at Wilmot Elementary. In a pull-out program, GT students are pulled out of their regular classrooms for 150 minutes of GT instruction per week. In this case, students from HSD attendance zones outside Wilmot (i.e. Noble/Allbritton Elementary and Portland Elementary) were to be bused to Wilmot Elementary one day a week for GT instruction. Sandra Oliver, the GT Coordinator for the HSD, testified that the Noble/Allbritton GT students depart on a bus at 9:15 a.m., pick up GT students from Portland Elementary, and arrive at Wilmot Elementary at approximately 10:15 a.m. The GT students from Noble/Allbritton and Portland then depart Wilmot Elementary at 1:30 p.m. The GT program appears to have been operated in this way-as a pull-out program-from the 1991-1992 school year to the present.
The Court retained jurisdiction over the terms of the 1991 Consent Order in order to ensure compliance with its terms. Since 1991, the parties have sought Court approval on a few different issues. In 1994, HSD filed a Motion for Approval of Zone Plan. (ECF No. 53). The motion addressed the voluntary annexation of the Parkdale School District into the Hamburg School District. The rezoning was unopposed and was approved by this Court on August 26, 1994. (ECF No. 55). The former Parkdale School District was added to the Wilmot attendance zone, roughly doubling the size of the Wilmot attendance zone.
There was no further action in this case until 2004 when HSD filed a Motion to Dismiss or in the Alternative, Approve Annexation. (ECF No. 56). HSD requested that the Court approve the consolidation of the Fountain Hill School District into the Hamburg School District and dismiss this case due to its compliance with the Court's previous orders. By agreement of the parties, an Order approving the consolidation was entered, but the case was not dismissed. (ECF No. 57).
On March 9, 2005, a Motion to Approve School Board Zones, to Modify Gifted and Talented Requirements, and to Permit Intra-District Zone Transfers was filed by HSD. (ECF No. 58). On April 7, 2005, the pleading was amended. (ECF No. 60). The motion stated that the rural portions of the Hamburg School District, including Wilmot, had suffered tremendous population loss and that the change in demographics had "resulted in an inequitable, inefficient allocation of students and resources throughout the district." As a result, the school district requested that the Consent Order be modified to relieve HSD from its obligations to strictly adhere to attendance zones and house its elementary GT programs at Wilmot Elementary. Plaintiffs opposed the motion. A hearing on the motion was held on June 14, 2005. Thereafter, the parties reached an agreement and submitted stipulations (ECF Nos. 66-67 & 69) for the Court's approval. An Amended Order approving the stipulations was entered on June 28, 2005. (ECF No. 70). As to the modification of the attendance zone requirement, the parties agreed to defer any decisions on the matter "pending further studies made subsequent to the school board elections in September 2005." Accordingly, the Court found that the attendance zone issue was moot and denied HSD's motion as to that issue. As to the modification of the GT program, the Amended Order held as follows:
[T]he parties have agreed to defer any decision on this matter until after the school board election in September 2005. In the event that the Board determines that its elementary level gifted and talented program should be modified, the Plaintiffs have agreed that they will support the Board's decision, provided that it is justified by legitimate reasons of educational benefits and financial feasibility. Any such changes shall be adopted only after a public hearing is held upon at least 20 days notice which sets out the proposed changes in detail. Therefore, the Court finds that this matter is moot at this time and hereby denies Defendant's motion as it relates to the modification of the district's elementary level gifted and talented program.
After the 2005 Order, there was no action taken in this case until 2014. On January 10, 2014, HSD filed a Motion to Reopen Case to Approve Closure of the Wilmot Elementary School Campus and to Modify Gifted and Talented Requirements. (ECF No. 71). A hearing on the motion was held on June 10 and June 18, 2015. (ECF Nos. 83 & 85). On the second day of the hearing, the parties expressed their desire to participate in a settlement conference with a magistrate judge. The hearing was adjourned, and the parties participated in a settlement conference on August 14, 2014. (ECF No. 87). No agreement was reached. As a result, Wilmot Elementary remained opened for the 2014-2015 school year. HSD filed an updated motion regarding the modification of GT requirements and the closure of Wilmot Elementary for the 2015-2016 school year. (ECF No. 90). It is this motion that is currently before the Court.
HSD argues in its motion that, since the entry of the Consent Order in 1991, there have been substantial changes in the composition of the Hamburg School District. These changes include the consolidation of the former Fountain Hill and Parkdale School Districts into the Hamburg School District and the substantial decline in population in the more rural areas of the district. As to Wilmot Elementary specifically, HSD argues that its enrollment has dwindled to an unsustainable level, even with the annexation of the Parkdale School District into the Wilmot attendance zone. Enrollment at Wilmot dropped from 81 students for the 2011-2012 school year to 49 students in 2014-2015.
The HSD School Board began discussing the declining enrollment at Wilmot in 2012. The issue was first raised at a board meeting on November 12, 2012. (HSD Exh. 1). A public forum, which was publicized on the front page of the Ashley County Ledger, was held on December 4, 2012. (HSD Exh. 2-3). The public was allowed to comment on the potential closure of Wilmot and raise any related concerns. At a February 11, 2013 board meeting, the school board voted to leave Wilmot Elementary open and combine grades K-1, 2-3, and 4-5 into three classrooms with one teacher and one paraprofessional for each combined class. (HSD Exh. 8). A second public forum concerning Wilmot Elementary was held on November 18, 2013 at 5:00 p.m. (HSD Exh, 11-13). At the scheduled board meeting at 6:00 p.m. that same day, the board unanimously ...