Judge sets 2020 hearing in desegregation lawsuit

The presiding judge in a 36-year-old federal Pulaski County school desegregation lawsuit has set a July 14-Aug. 7, 2020, bench trial on whether the Pulaski County Special and Jacksonville/North Pulaski school districts are entitled to be released from court oversight.

U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. issued a series of orders Thursday that identified the broad issues to be addressed at the 2020 summer court hearing. He also provided instructions and deadlines for preparing for the hearing to the court's expert and to the two districts and the lawsuit's intervenors who represent black students in the two districts.

Marshall said issues to be resolved are whether the Pulaski County Special and Jacksonville/North Pulaski districts are "unitary" on discipline, student achievement and monitoring; whether the Pulaski County Special district is unitary on facilities; and whether the Jacksonville/North Pulaski district is unitary on staffing incentives.

A district is "unitary," or desegregated, and entitled to be released from federal court involvement in its operations if it has complied with the provisions of its court-approved school desegregation plan and/or federal court directives.

Marshall noted that the Jacksonville/North Pulaski district also remains under supervision for the condition of its schools as it carries out its plans for improving all of its school facilities over the next few years, "but those matters were tried and decided last year."

Pulaski County Special and Jacksonville/North Pulaski are the only two districts that remain as parties in the lawsuit. The Little Rock School District, which filed the desegregation lawsuit in 1982, and the North Little Rock School District were declared unitary earlier and have exited the lawsuit as the result of a 2014 settlement agreement among the parties.

The Jacksonville/North Pulaski district, which was carved out of the Pulaski County Special district, has been operating independent of that district since July 2016. But as a condition of that detachment, the new district inherited all of the desegregation obligations of the Pulaski County Special district.

Also in the lawsuit are the representatives of the class of all black students in the two districts. They have been known for decades as the Joshua intervenors. However, since the original intervenors, including Lorene Joshua, have passed away and/or no longer have children in the districts, new families have been selected to represent the class of all black students.

In his orders Thursday, the federal judge approved the nominations for the new representatives of black students in the Pulaski County Special district. They are Emily McClendon, Tamara Eackles and Valerie Stallings. They join Tiffany Ellis, who was previously approved by the judge as a class representative for black students in the Jacksonville/North Pulaski district.

"All are engaged parents, involved with their children at various [Pulaski County Special School District] schools on academic achievement and discipline issues, and familiar with the facilities," Marshall wrote in his order Thursday. "They will be adequate sub-class representatives on the remaining [Pulaski County Special School District]-related issues."

In regard to preparations for the July 14, 2020, start-date for the hearing on unitary status, Marshall asked the attorneys for the districts to submit notices by Oct. 4 this year "on why each [district] believes it is, will be, or is not unitary in each remaining area."

Those notices from each of the two districts will provide a road map for the discovery phase of the trial preparations, he said.

The intervenors, who are represented by a legal team headed by Rep. John Walker, D-Little Rock, are scheduled to respond to the districts' notices by Nov. 1.

"On trial architecture, the Court requests the parties to plan for five mini-trials: several days of area-specific proof; a day or two break; then on to the next area, until we cover them all.

"This is an ambitious schedule," the judge said. "But with preparation, planning, and focus, we can do it."

Marshall directed that his desegregation expert in the case, Margie Powell, prepare a summary report on each area, by district, that is to be a focus of the court hearing. The reports can build on Powell's previous reports to the judge and also on the reports of the federal Office of Desegregation Monitoring -- of which Powell was a staff member and chief -- before it was disbanded a few years ago.

Powell's reports are due to the judge by Jan. 31.

Marshall included in his orders a list of dates for status conferences, submission of motions, identification of expert witnesses and exchange of trial exhibits.

The first status conference -- involving the judge and the attorneys for the districts and intervenors -- is set for 1:30 p.m. Dec. 11.

Metro on 07/19/2019