LITTLE ROCK — Amid uncertainty about millions of dollars of state desegregation aid, Little Rock School District Superintendent Morris Holmes assured parents, staff and teachers Friday that the district would work “to land squarely on ourfeet for the 2011-2012 school year.”
“Over the next few weeks, we will need your support and patience, both of which will go a long way to help us through this unexpected hit,” Holmes wrote in a letter posted on the district’s website Friday afternoon.
The district faces financial uncertainty going into a new fiscal year July 1 after U.S. Circuit Judge Brian Miller, in a May 19 ruling, freed the state of its obligations to pay most of the desegregation funding it has issued for more than two decades.
The state pays nearly $70million annually to the Little Rock, Pulaski County Special and North Little Rock school districts as a requirement of a 1989 settlement in the 28-year-old Pulaski County school-desegregation case.
By Friday afternoon, neither Miller nor the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St.Louis had issued a response to the district’s requests to stay the ruling, according to the federal courts’ websites. A stay would continue the state’s funding obligation until appeals can be decided.
The Little Rock district’s attorneys, Chris Heller and Clay Fendley, have said the loss - up to $38 million for the 2011-12 school year, more than 10 percent of the district’s budget - could put the 25,000-student system in peril, potentially forcing it to close magnet school programs and to lay off teachers.
Attorney General Dustin McDaniel said in a motion, filed Thursday in opposition of a stay, that the district has reserves totaling more than $21 million and relatively high per-pupil state and local funding to help it through the transition.
Heller and Fendley asked Miller on Tuesday to decide by Friday whether he’d grant a stay, a tighter timeline than the judge typically uses to make such decisions.
The attorneys filed a second stay request directly to the appeals court Wednesday night after Miller’s clerk e-mailed them earlier in the day to inform them thatthe judge would not grant the stay request at the circuit court level, the motion said.
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.
The school boards of the three districts receiving desegregation funding have pondered for several years when and if the funding would stop.
Holmes said that after he was hired as the district’s permanent superintendent May 12, he planned to cut the district’s current operating expenses in a way “so that very little fat isleft,” eliminating excess staff and programs to prepare for “oncoming budget shortfalls.”
In Friday’s letter, Holmes told employees and school patrons: “We will work diligently to maintain appropriate staff and teachers in order that all of our students can be housed in safe and orderly classrooms.”
Gov. Mike Beebe told the Democrat-Gazette that “everybody needs to be concentrated on what’s in the best interest of the kids.”
“But if I read these numbers right, with Little Rock getting $2,000 a kid more in unrestricted, just regular maintenance and operation money - $2,000 more than the average - eighth-highest in the state ... they don’t have to close a single magnet school,” Beebe said.
The attorney general’s court filing said the district receives a per-pupil average of $9,396 of unrestricted state and local funding without the desegregation funds, almost $2,000 more than the statewide average of $7,489.
The board of the Pulaski County Special School District authorized its attorneys Wednesday to join in the appeals process. As of Friday, no appeals had been filed.
The North Little Rock School Board has not yet voted to take any legal action in response to Miller’s ruling.