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Turner v. Lafayette County School District

United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Texarkana Division

January 17, 2019

MARY TURNER, et al. PLAINTIFFS
v.
LAFAYETTE COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT, 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 Lafayette County School District's (“LCSD”) Motion for Declaratory Judgment, or Alternatively, for Clarification of Previous Orders, or Alternatively, for Modification of Previous Orders. (ECF No. 27). Plaintiffs have filed a response in support of LCSD's motion. (ECF No. 31). The Arkansas Department of Education (“ADE”) and Arkansas State Board of Education (“SBE”) have filed a response in opposition to the motion. (ECF No. 45). LCSD has filed a reply. (ECF No. 53). The Court finds this matter ripe for consideration

         I. BACKGROUND

         This lawsuit was filed in April 1992 by a staff member and parents and guardians of minor African American students in the Lewisville School District No. 1.[1] In March 1993, the Court dismissed the case with prejudice subject to the terms of a consent decree (hereinafter the “Turner Decree”). (ECF Nos. 9 & 10). The Turner Decree, in relevant part, enjoined Defendants from “engaging in any policies, practices, customs or usages of racial discrimination in any school operation including, but not limited to . . . student assignments, and the treatment of black and other minority pupils within the school system.” (ECF No. 9, ¶ 4; ECF No. 27-1, ¶ 4). The Turner Decree, likewise, required Defendants to maintain a desegregation and integration policy “which promotes pupil . . . integration rather than one of passive acceptance of desegregation between students of all races without regard to socio-economic status.” (ECF No. 9, ¶ 12; ECF No. 27-1, ¶ 12). Moreover, the Turner Decree provided that “[t]he district shall hereafter maintain a unitary, racially non-discriminatory school system wherein all schools are effectively and equitably desegregated and integrated.” (ECF No. 9, ¶ 13; ECF No. 27-1, ¶ 13). The Turner Decree further stated that “[t]he Court shall have continuing jurisdiction of [the decree] in order to [e]nsure compliance with the spirit and terms of [the decree].” (ECF No. 9, ¶ 18; ECF No. 27-1, ¶ 18).

         The Arkansas Public School Choice Act of 1989 (the “1989 Act”) was in effect at the time the parties executed the Turner Decree. 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. 27-2, §§ 11(a-b)).

         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.[2] 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. 27-5, 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. The 2015 Act amended the 2013 Act and, 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. 27-6, 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”), which amended 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. 27-7, 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.

         LCSD concedes that it took part in school choice under the 2013 Act for the 2013-2014 school year. However, LCSD states that the basis for participating in school choice was its mistaken belief that participation would not run afoul of its requirements under the Turner Decree or its general desegregation obligations. LCSD asserts that during its participation in school choice, a total of thirty students-all non-black-applied for and received school choice transfers out of LCSD. Based on the segregative impact of these transfers and its Turner Decree obligations, LCSD “elected to exempt [itself] from participating in the 2013 Act for school year 2014-2015 and declared a conflict with participating under the 2015 Act for school years 2015-16, 2016-2017, and 2017-2018.” (ECF No. 27, ¶ 16). LCSD states that the ADE and SBE observed LCSD's exemption or declared a conflict with participation in school choice under the 2013 and 2015 Acts, respectively, for the 2014-2015, 2015-2016, 2016-2017, and 2017-2018 school years.

         On December 27, 2017, LCSD 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 LCSD's request for an exemption, finding that LCSD failed to demonstrate that it was subject to a federal court's active desegregation order “explicitly limiting the interdistrict transfer of students.” (ECF No. 27-13) (emphasis in original). The ADE found that the Turner Decree, which LCSD submitted, among other things, as proof of its conflict, did not explicitly limit inter-district student transfers and, accordingly, the ADE concluded that LCSD would be required to participate in school choice for the 2018-2019 school year.

         On February 6, 2018, LCSD appealed the ADE's decision to the SBE. The SBE heard LCSD's appeal on March 8, 2018, and, in a subsequent order dated March 26, 2018, upheld the ADE's decision that LCSD would not receive an exemption and, therefore, must participate in school choice for the 2018-2019 school year. (ECF No. 27-16).

         On May 18, 2018, LCSD filed the instant Motion for Declaratory Judgment, or Alternatively, for Clarification of Previous Orders, or Alternatively, for Modification of Previous Orders. (ECF No. 27). LCSD states that it is still subject to the obligations imposed by the Turner Decree and that participation in school choice would have a segregative impact on LCSD, thereby causing it to violate the Turner Decree. Accordingly, LCSD states that it has a conflict with taking part in school choice pursuant to the 2017 Act. LCSD seeks, through various alternative means of relief, 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 May 25, 2018, Plaintiffs filed a response supporting the instant motion. (ECF No. 31).

         On May 23, 2018, the Court issued an order certifying LCSD's constitutional challenge and sending notice to the Arkansas Attorney General's Office pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 5.1(b). (ECF No. 29). On June 21, 2018, the ADE and SBE filed a motion to intervene in this case for the limited purpose of opposing the instant motion. (ECF No. 37). On June 22, 2018, the Court held a status conference in which LCSD, Plaintiffs, and counsel from the Arkansas Attorney General's Office participated. On July 2, 2018, the Court granted the ADE and SBE's motion to intervene, thereby allowing those parties to intervene for the limited purpose of opposing the instant motion. (ECF No. 44). On July 16, 2018, the ADE and SBE filed their response in opposition to the instant motion. (ECF No. 45).

         On August 1, 2018, the Court held an evidentiary hearing on LCSD'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, LCSD informed the Court that it did not desire an additional evidentiary hearing regarding the instant motion. (ECF No. 66). 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. 67). Accordingly, the Court finds the matter fully briefed and ripe for consideration.

         II. DISCUSSION

         LCSD seeks a ruling that it is prohibited from taking part in school choice. Specifically, LCSD asks that the Court confirm its conflict with participating in school choice and declare void the SBE's March 28, 2018, order requiring that LCSD participate in school choice. LCSD asks the Court to do so through one of the following means: (1) modifying the Turner Decree 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 Turner Decree, as written, prohibits segregative inter-district transfers; (3) issuing a declaratory judgment confirming that LCSD has a conflict with participating in school choice due to the Turner Decree and ordering the SBE to reverse its March 28, 2018, order requiring LCSD to participate in school choice; or (4) declaring that the 2017 Act is unconstitutional to the extent that it authorizes the ADE to determine whether or not a school district has a conflict with participating in school choice.

         The Court will begin by addressing the threshold issue of whether the Turner Decree applies to LCSD and, if the Court answers that question affirmatively, will then turn to LCSD's request for modification of the Turner Decree. Next, if necessary, the Court will address LCSD's requests for clarification of the Turner Decree, for a declaratory judgment, and that portions of the 2017 Act be declared unconstitutional.

         A. Whether the Turner Decree Applies to LCSD

         To begin, the Court must address a threshold question that underlies the instant motion- namely, whether the Turner Decree applies to LCSD. LCSD takes the position that it is bound by the Turner Decree even though that decree applied to the now-defunct Lewisville School ...


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