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Judge urged to stay school ruling

Intervenors worry state desegregation-aid cut will endanger jobs by Evie Blad | June 1, 2011 at 2:42 a.m.

— Freeing the state from millions of dollars of annual desegregation payments to three school districts will threaten the livelihood of thousands of employees, a group representing those districts’ teachers and staff said in a federal court filing Tuesday.

The Knight intervenors, a party in the 28-year-old Pulaski County school desegregation case, asked U.S. Circuit Judge Brian Miller to stay his May 19 ruling that freed the state of most of its obligation to pay nearly $70 million in desegregation aid to the Little Rock, Pulaski County Special and North Little Rock school districts.

The group made its request in a response supporting a previous motion by Little Rock School District attorneys Chris Heller and Clay Fendley.

A stay would keep the payments in place until the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at St. Louis can consider an appeal of Miller’s ruling.

“A disruption of critical funding from the State of Arkansas at this time will cause irreparable harm to students and the Knight Intervenors,” the intervenors’ response said.

The group is named for teacher Katherine Wright Knight, a former president of the Little Rock teachers union.

It represents the interests of teachers and staff in the case that resulted in a system of majority-to-minority student transfers, interdistrict magnet schools and federal court monitoring.

The state’s desegregationaid payments are part of a 1989settlement in the case. More than half of that funding goes to the Little Rock School District.

Under Miller’s 110-page order, which granted partial unitary status to the North Little Rock and Pulaski County Special school districts, the state remains responsible for funding the majority-to-minority interdistrict student-transfer program. But Miller directed the districts to submit legal briefs within 30 days to show why the transfer program’s funding should not also stop.

The Little Rock School District was declared unitary, or desegregated, in 2009.

Heller and Fendley have said the decision could cost the 25,000-student Little Rock district $38 million for the 2011-12 school year, more than 10 percent of its budget. Magnet programs could be affected.

Teacher contracts for the next academic year were automatically extended on May 1, Knight intervenors attorney Mark Burnette wrote in the filing Tuesday.

“We’re not the primary movers on the issue, but we feel strongly that the Little Rock School District’s position is correct,” Burnette said in an interview. “We want the court to recognize our position.”

When Miller indicated last week that he would not grant a stay on an expedited timeline, which would have required a decision by Friday, the LittleRock district’s attorneys, Heller and Fendley, appealed directly to the appeals court for a stay.

In a response to that motion, Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel said last week that the Little Rock district’s budget reserves of nearly$21 million and relatively high level of unrestricted state and local per-pupil funding would be enough to support staff and programs without the desegregation aid.

McDaniel said in a news release last week that the judge “recognized that we must change a broken system to better serve our children.”

Miller said in his ruling that the funding provided an incentive for the districts, which he said were not motivated to meet desegregation goals for fear of losing the aid.

Burnette said teachers fear layoffs if the judge does not stay his ruling.

“I’d seriously doubt that they’d have sufficient funds to fulfill all of the obligations that would fall by the wayside,” he said.

The Pulaski County Special School District Board authorized its attorneys to join in the appeal last week. By Tuesday, the district had not filed any appeals.

The North Little Rock School Board has not yet voted to take action on the ruling.

Arkansas, Pages 9 on 06/01/2011

Print Headline: Judge urged to stay school ruling

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