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United States v. Junction City School District No. 75

United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, El Dorado Division

January 17, 2019

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA PLAINTIFF
v.
JUNCTION CITY SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 75, et al. DEFENDANTS ARKANSAS DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION and ARKANSAS STATE BOARD OF EDUCATION INTERVENORS

          ORDER

          Susan O. Hickey, United States District Judge.

         Before the Court is the Junction City School District's (“Junction City”) Motion for Declaratory Judgment, or Alternatively, for Clarification of Previous Orders, or Alternatively, for Modification of Previous Orders. (ECF No. 2). The United States has filed a response to the motion. (ECF No. 20). The Arkansas Department of Education (“ADE”) and the Arkansas State Board of Education (“SBE”) have filed a response in opposition. (ECF No. 26). The Court finds the matter ripe for consideration.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On February 7, 1966, Plaintiff United States of America (“United States”) filed this action against Junction City, seeking to dismantle the district's operation of a dual school system. (See ECF No. 20-1). On June 21, 1966, the United States filed a Motion for Preliminary Injunction requesting that Junction City and other defendants be enjoined from continuing to assign students to particular schools because of their race; operating separate school buses for black and white students; segregating faculty and staff based on race; and maintaining any distinctions in the operation and management of Junction City based on race or color. (See ECF No. 20-2, p. 5). On August 15, 1966, the Court granted the United States' Motion for Preliminary Injunction and issued an order enjoining Junction City from “maintaining and operating racially segregated public schools” and directing Junction City to eliminate its dual school system “with all deliberate speed.” (ECF No. 20-3, p. 3). On September 8, 1966, Junction City responded by filing a “freedom-of-choice” desegregation plan to which the United States objected and proposed its own plan. (ECF No. 2-4). On November 29, 1966, the Court entered an order finding that neither proposed plan was acceptable and directing Defendants to “institute a good faith freedom of choice plan for desegregation of the 11th and 12th grades beginning in January 1967.” (ECF No. 1, p. 3). The Court further ordered Junction City and other defendants to submit a report to the Court regarding its implementation of the freedom-of-choice plan. On August 14, 1967, the Court issued a decree requiring Junction City to implement a freedom-of-choice plan and setting forth the procedural framework for implementing the plan. (See ECF No. 20-4).

         On May 24, 1968, the United States moved the Court for an order requiring the consolidation of the Junction City schools. After a hearing on the motion, the Court cancelled its decree dated August 14, 1967, and ordered Junction City to “propose an alternate plan for the conversion of the school system to a unitary system in accordance with the decisions of the Supreme Court made May 27, 1968, for all students in attendance.” (ECF No. 2-1, p. 3). The Court allowed Junction City to begin operating schools in September 1968 under the freedom-of-choice plan until the district filed a consolidation plan in January 1969. (ECF No. 2-3). The Court then issued several orders directing Junction City to allow certain grades to attend school under the freedom-of-choice plan and further directing the district to consolidate all students in certain grades. (See id.; see also ECF No. 2-5 (assigning students grade 9-12 to Junction City High School and permitting students from other grades to attend either Junction City Elementary or Rosenwald School)).

         On October 23, 1970, the United States moved for further relief against Junction City on the grounds that Junction City failed to remedy its within-school segregation and its segregated transportation system. (ECF No. 2-6). On November 20, 1970, the Court entered an Order (“the 1970 Order”) enjoining Defendants from “assigning students to, or maintaining any homeroom, classroom, or other school-related activity on the basis of race, color or national origin.” (ECF No. 2-7). The Court's Order further directed Defendants to redraw their bus routes and reassign students to the buses on a non-racial basis. Id. Junction City has since been operating under the 1970 Order, which requires Junction City to comply with certain desegregations obligations.

         In 1989, Arkansas enacted a school choice program. The Arkansas Public School Choice Act of 1989 (the “1989 Act”) provided for a school choice program whereby a student could apply to attend a public school in a district that the student did not reside in, subject to certain limitations. The 1989 Act provided further that “[n]o student may transfer to a nonresident district where the percentage of enrollment for the student's race exceeds that percentage in his resident district” and that “[i]n any instance where the foregoing provisions would result in a conflict with a desegregation court order, the terms of the order shall govern.” (ECF No. 2-11, §§ 11(a-b)). Thus, the 1989 Act did not hinder Junction City's ongoing efforts to remove all vestiges of previous segregation because the statute allowed Junction City to reject segregative transfers in and out of the district.

         In 2013, the Arkansas Public School Choice Act of 2013 (the “2013 Act”) was enacted, expressly repealing the 1989 Act. The 2013 Act again allowed students to apply to attend a nonresident public school district. However, the 2013 Act did not contain the 1989 Act's limiting language barring segregative inter-district transfers.[1] The 2013 Act allowed any school district to annually declare itself exempt from participating in school choice if said participation would conflict with the school district's obligations under a federal court's “desegregation plan regarding the effects of past racial segregation in student assignment” or a federal court order “remedying the effects of past racial segregation.” (ECF No. 2-12, p. 11). Any school district that made this declaration would be exempt from participating in school choice for that school year.

         In 2015, the Arkansas Public School Choice Act of 2015 (the “2015 Act”) was enacted, thereby amending the 2013 Act. The 2015 Act, among other things, eliminated the school districts' ability to declare themselves exempt from participating in school choice due to a conflict with existing obligations under a federal court's desegregation plan or order. Instead, the 2015 Act required that a school district wishing to be exempt from participating in school choice must submit proof to the ADE “that the school district has a genuine conflict under an active desegregation order or active court-approved desegregation plan with the [2015 Act.]” (ECF No. 2-13, p. 5). If the school district submitted proof of an order or plan to the ADE, the provisions of the order or plan would govern, thereby exempting the school district from participating in school choice.

         In 2017, the Arkansas General Assembly passed Act 1066 of the Regular Session of 2017 (the “2017 Act”), thereby amending the 2015 Act. The 2017 Act, among other things, amended the 2015 Act's language allowing school districts to seek an exemption from participating in school choice. Under the 2017 Act, school districts seeking to be exempt from participation in school choice must now submit proof to the ADE “that the school district has a genuine conflict under an active desegregation order or active court-approved desegregation plan that explicitly limits the transfer of students between school districts.” (ECF No. 2-14, p. 2) (emphasis added). The ADE evaluates school districts' applications for an exemption from school choice and determines whether to grant an exemption. The SBE decides any appeals of the ADE's decisions regarding school choice exemption applications.

         From 2013 through 2017, Junction City either declared itself exempt or applied for exemptions from participating in school choice pursuant to the school choice law in effect at the time. Each year, the ADE and SBE observed these declared conflicts with school choice and included Junction City on a public list of school districts not participating in school choice. Accordingly, Junction City did not participate in school choice at all while the 2013 Act and 2015 Act were in effect.

         On December 27, 2017, Junction City applied for an exemption from participating in school choice under the 2017 Act for the 2018-2019 school year and submitted supporting documents to the ADE. On January 19, 2018, the ADE denied Junction City's request for an exemption, finding that Junction City failed to demonstrate that it was subject to a federal court's active desegregation order “explicitly limiting the interdistrict transfer of students.” (ECF No. 2-19) (emphasis in original). The ADE found that documentation submitted by Junction City as proof of its conflict did not explicitly limit inter-district student transfers. Thus, the ADE concluded that Junction City would be required to participate in school choice for the 2018-2019 school year.

         Junction City appealed the ADE's decision to the SBE. The SBE heard Junction City's appeal on March 8, 2018 and, in a subsequent order dated March 26, 2018, upheld the ADE's decision that Junction City would not receive an exemption and, therefore, must participate in school choice for the 2018-2019 school year. (ECF No. 2-22).

         On May 14, 2018, Junction City filed the instant Motion for Declaratory Judgment, or Alternatively, for Clarification of Previous Orders, or Alternatively, for Modification of Previous Orders (hereinafter “Motion for Declaratory Judgment”). (ECF No. 2). In that motion, Junction City states that it is still subject to its desegregation obligations imposed by the Court's prior orders and that participation in school choice would have a segregative impact on Junction City, thereby causing it to violate the Court's previous orders. Accordingly, Junction City asserts that it has a conflict with taking part in school choice pursuant to the 2017 Act. Junction City seeks, by various alternative means, a finding that it is prohibited from taking part in school choice and/or a declaration that portions of the 2017 Act are unconstitutional.

         On June 15, 2018, the Court issued an order certifying Junction City's constitutional challenge and sending notice to the Arkansas Attorney General's Office of the same, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 5.1(b). (ECF No. 5). On June 21, 2018, the ADE and SBE filed a motion to intervene in this case for the limited purpose of opposing Junction City's Motion for Declaratory Judgment. (ECF No. 13). On June 22, 2018, the Court held a status conference in which Junction City, the United States, and counsel from the Arkansas Attorney General's Office participated. On July 3, 2018, the United States filed its response to Junction City's Motion for Declaratory Judgment, posing no opposition to the motion. (ECF No. 20). On July 9, 2018, the Court granted the ADE and SBE's motion to intervene, thereby allowing those parties to intervene for the limited purpose of opposing Junction City's Motion for Declaratory Judgment. (ECF No. 21). On July 20, 2018, the ADE and SBE filed their response in opposition to Junction City's Motion for Declaratory Judgment. (ECF No. 26).

         On August 1, 2018, the Court held an evidentiary hearing on Junction City's separate motion for preliminary injunctive relief. At the hearing, the parties offered evidence and witness testimony, much of which is also relevant and applicable to the instant motion. On September 11, 2018, Junction City informed the Court that it did not desire an additional evidentiary hearing regarding the instant motion. (ECF No. 41). On September 21, 2018, the ADE and SBE informed the Court that they also did not desire an additional evidentiary hearing regarding the instant motion. (ECF No. 42). Accordingly, the Court finds the matter fully briefed and ripe for consideration.

         II. DISCUSSION

         Junction City seeks a ruling that it is prohibited from taking part in school choice. Specifically, Junction City asks that the Court confirm its conflict with participating in school choice and declare void the SBE's March 26, 2018 order requiring that Junction City participate in school choice. Junction City asks the Court to do so through one of the following means: (1) modifying the Court's 1970 Order to prohibit segregative inter-district transfers in light of changes in Arkansas law, occurring with the 2013 repeal of the 1989 Act and the subsequent enactment of the 2017 Act; (2) clarifying that the Court's 1970 Order, as written, prohibits segregative inter-district transfers; (3) issuing a declaratory judgment confirming that Junction City has a conflict with participating in school choice because it remains subject to a federal court desegregation order and ordering the SBE to reverse its March 26, 2018 order ...


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