Court stops funding cuts to Little Rock schools

AP News
Posted: Jun 21, 2011 9:22 PM
Court stops funding cuts to Little Rock schools

A federal appeals court Tuesday temporarily restored Arkansas' payments to Little Rock schools for desegregation programs, a move that likely allows the funding to continue over the protests of many lawmakers.

In a brief order Tuesday, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stay of a lower court's ruling. U.S. District Judge Brian Miller last month ordered most of the payments to end.

Arkansas pays about $70 million a year to the Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County school districts, which serves about 50,000 students, for various programs to advance desegregation. State lawmakers have long derided the payments, and Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe and other officials have pushed for them to end.

Grant Tennille, a spokesman for Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe, said the state will comply with the order and continue the desegregation payments to the districts.

"There is a lot of uncertainty out there," Tennille said. "The appeal's going to continue and both the state and the districts have to plan for the day when this funding will end."

The appeals court denied a request for an expedited appeals process. That means lawyers for the state and the schools might not argue the case in court until this fall, said Chris Heller, an attorney for the Little Rock School District.

The court's order came one day after Pulaski County's superintendent and school board were dismissed by Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell, part of a state takeover after several poor financial reports. North Little Rock also remains classified under "fiscal distress."

Heller said the stay also allows the schools to avoid making severe cuts for teachers and programs.

"That was a nearly impossible task," Heller said. "There's no way to avoid having an impact on students' educations when you have to cut that much money that quickly."

But Bobby Lester, appointed Monday as Pulaski County's interim superintendent, said the court order could give the district time before desegregation payments stop completely.

"I think we need to start working toward that and scaling down," Lester said in an interview Tuesday. "I don't think we can just put off everything as if it's never going to go away, because eventually it's going to go away, in my opinion."

The state had reduced its payments after Miller's ruling, which only kept in place funding for majority to minority transfers allowing students in the three districts to go from a school where the race is the majority to a school where their race is a minority.

Court battles over desegregation in Arkansas date back to 1957, when nine black students, dubbed the Little Rock Nine, famously integrated a city high school over the efforts of then-Gov. Orval Faubus. A 1989 settlement established the payments.

Critics of desegregation spending say the money goes to things besides its stated goal. Miller agreed with that view in his ruling last month.

"It seems that the State of Arkansas is using a carrot and stick approach with these districts but that the districts are wise mules that have learned how to eat the carrot and sit down on the job," Miller wrote. "The time has finally come for all carrots to be put away. These mules must not either pull their proverbial carts on their own or face a very heavy and punitive stick."

The judge temporarily left in place about $21 million a year for majority-to-minority transfers, but ordered all three districts to submit briefs explaining why so-called "M-to-M" funding was still needed.

The Arkansas Department of Education had started to make the smaller payments this week. Now, education officials will wait for word from Attorney General Dustin McDaniel on whether to pay the remaining amount due for June, department spokesman Seth Blomeley said.

"We're going to comply with whatever the court says," he said.

McDaniel spokesman Aaron Sadler said in a statement that the court order showed that the long-running court battle over the payments _ which stem from a 1989 settlement _ is far from over.

McDaniel's office had advised lawmakers eager to spend desegregation money elsewhere to wait on the appeals process.

"This order demonstrates that there are legal issues still to be resolved," Sadler said. We will continue to work with the Department of Education to ensure that the State meets the educational needs of the students of these three districts."

A spokeswoman for the North Little Rock schools did not respond to a request for comment.