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Little Rock School District v. Pulaski County Special School District

United States District Court, E.D. Arkansas, Western Division

September 25, 2018



          D.P. Marshall Jr. United States District Judge

         Summary. The Jacksonville/North Pulaski School District asks the Court to declare its facilities and staffing unitary. JNPSD requests, in the alternative, an order holding that the District will be unitary if it implements its 2018 master facilities plan with some modifications. The Ellis intervenors oppose these requests. They say they're premature and, in any event, lack merit. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b)(5) governs JNPSD's motion. JNPSD descends, of course, from the Pulaski County Special School District. When Arkansas, the Districts, and the intervenors settled a large part of this case in 2013, their agreement contemplated JNPSD's creation. In due course, it came into being. The new District inherited all of PCSSD's remaining obligations under Plan 2000, the "particularization of federal law applicable to these parties." Knight v. Pulaski County Special School District, 112 F.3d 953, 955 (8th Cir. 1997). The current question is whether JNPSD has, to the extent practicable, complied in good faith with its desegregation obligations on facilities and on staff. Freeman v. Pitts, 503 U.S. 467, 492 (1992). Plan 2000, s provisions on these two issues are in the margin. The Court agrees with the intervenors on a threshold point: JNPSD has the burden of proof. The District is right, though, to emphasize the special circumstances presented: JNPSD inherited Plan 2000's obligations; it is likewise entitled to lean on PCSSD's compliance with those obligations insofar as they concern the new District.

         The Court has benefited from the testimony and exhibits received at the five-day trial in February. Nudged -one might truthfully say, pushed -by the Court, the parties covered much ground. The Court has also drawn freely on what it has learned in presiding over the detachment-related proceedings since 2013. Whether JNPSD has complied in good faith with these two parts of Plan 2000 turns, in large measure, on the credibility of the witnesses. The Court has made those calls. All material things considered, the Court concludes that, with the exception of incentives for certain teachers, JNPSD is unitary in staffing; it is not unitary in facilities; but the District will be if it complies with the current master plan, as modified by this Order. To state a fiscally obvious but nonetheless important point, like districts across Arkansas, JNPSD will require continued substantial support from the State through partnership funding (or some substantially similar program) to meet its facilities needs.

         Facilities. [*] The foundation of JNPSD's facilities obligations is "a plan so that existing school facilities are clean, safe, attractive[, ] and equal." PLAN 2000 § H(1). JNPSD has a plan, duly adopted by the school's board, and annually updated as required by Arkansas law. The District has been engaged in facilities planning for three years. As this Court has already held, JNPSD has made a strong and ambitious start with the new high school, which is partly built. No. 5187. The District's recent decision to build a new middle school, rather than renovate an existing facility, is equally ambitious and prudent. These state of the art facilities will be clean, safe, attractive, and more - they'll be excellent. They'll also serve all JNPSD students equally because they'll be the school home for every JNPSD student in those upper grades. The intervenors have no real quarrel with all this. They're concerned, though, about JNPSD's plans for the elementary schools -in particular, that the District's plan for replacing all the elementary schools will not be completed for some sixteen years.

         Before the Court explores that deep issue, two other facilities-related provisions of Plan 2000 can be addressed summarily. Most of § H(2) applies to PCSSD, not JNPSD. The part that does apply-the obligation not to close schools in predominantly African-American areas absent compelling necessity - has been met. There's no evidence that JNPSD has closed such a school. The District has also satisfied its obligation under § H(3) to notify the intervenors about facility-related plans and their likely effects, plus consider any prompt response. The District is unitary in its § H(2) and § H(3) obligations.

         Back to the plan for replacing the elementary schools. The combined replacement for the Tolleson and Arnold Drive schools opened in August 2018. There are four others. Dupree and Pinewood are scheduled to be replaced in August 2022. That leaves Taylor and Bayou Meto, both scheduled for replacement in 2034. There are no plans to replace the Adkins pre-K facility. It serves the entire district, so there is no equality dispute. The challenge there, of course, will be maintenance to keep Adkins clean, safe, dry, and as up to date as possible. Here again, there was no real dispute: this is being done.

         The intervenors are right. Sixteen years is just too long to make the children attending Taylor, about 70% of whom are black, and Bayou Meto, more than 80% of whom are white, wait for facilities that are equal to other JNPSD elementary schools, especially the new one. The District's 2018 master plan contemplates phase II expansions in 2023-2025 in the new high school and middle school, based on projected enrollment growth. Needing more space will be a good problem to have. But fulfilling JNPSD's Plan 2000 commitment to equal facilities within its District must come first.

         To its credit, JNPSD acknowledged and embraced this obligation at the trial. The District pledged to replace Taylor and Bayou Meto as quickly as possible. The District went further: it pledged to prioritize replacing those two elementary schools ahead of any expansions of the new high school or middle school. If JNPSD can't do all this at the same time, then it will build the new elementary facilities first. That commitment puts Taylor and Bayou Meto on track for replacement in about eight years.

         JNPSD's plan is extraordinary. Within approximately a dozen years of its creation, the District will have built a new high school, a new middle school, and four new elementary schools. JNPSD's good faith is demonstrated by the plan itself and the progress already made. It's not just paper. The new elementary school has opened and the new high school will open next fall. Multi-purpose buildings have been added at Taylor and Bayou Meto because they're at the back of the line for complete replacement. Those buildings will be integrated into the replacement facilities. The community hitched up with a 7.6 mill increase in real property taxes. Arkansas is in harness, too, with substantial partnership program funding. Continued partnership funding, or some equivalent state assistance, is essential for JNPSD to meet its desegregation obligations through this solid and reasonable facilities plan. Both horses are necessary to pull this wagon home.

         The Court is persuaded by the testimony from Mr. Tony Wood, Dr. Charles Stein, and Dr. Bryan Duffie about the finances involved on facilities in particular and in the District as a whole. Schools are much more than buildings, and it's essential to keep JNPSD healthy, financially and otherwise. Teachers and staff must be paid fair and competitive salaries. Equipment must be bought and maintained and replaced in due course. Facilities must be taken care of. Debt must be repaid. The Court is convinced that JNPSD's 2018 master facilities plan, as modified, keeps the District on path to do all these things, while also providing clean, safe, adequate, and -soon-equal facilities to all its students.

         The Court therefore approves JNPSD's 2018 master plan with these modifications:

• The replacement elementary schools will be completed as quickly as possible;
• JNPSD will apply for state funding through the partnership program, or the then-existing equivalent program, no later than year one of the 2023-2025 project funding cycle for support of the Taylor elementary and Bayou Meto elementary replacement projects;
• Taylor and Bayou Meto will be replaced before any phase-II expansion projects at the high school or the middle school, unless the replacements can be done at the same time as one or both of the expansions without ...

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