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story.lead_photo.caption A classroom is shown in this 2015 file photo.

Attorneys for the Pulaski County Special School District on Monday asked a federal judge to declare unitary the 12,000-student district that has been embroiled in a federal school desegregation lawsuit for nearly four decades.

If the motion is ultimately granted -- following a court hearing set to start July 14 -- the district would be released from any further federal court monitoring of its desegregation efforts.

"PCSSD is deserving of a declaration of complete unitary status," attorneys for the district wrote to presiding U.S. District Chief Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. "A new day has dawned in PCSSD. The time for a complete unitary declaration has come."

The district's motion for unitary status and a 57-page brief in support of the motion came at the end of two days in which the Pulaski Special district submitted about a dozen filings to the judge, including a few hundred pages of motions, supporting briefs and depositions in advance of the July hearing. Documents filed Friday were not publicly accessible until Monday.

The district's obligations in about a dozen areas of operations are largely contained in a court-approved desegregation plan known as Plan 2000. The Pulaski district has been declared unitary previously in all areas but facilities, student discipline practices, student achievement and self-monitoring of desegregation efforts.

Attorneys for the district point to the establishment of a scholars academy with local higher education campuses, the construction of a new Mills High and conversion of the old Mills building to a middle school, and implementation of student discipline initiatives as reasons for full unitary status.

In other documents sent to the federal judge in recent days, attorneys for the Pulaski County Special and the Jacksonville/North Pulaski school district asked Marshall to require attorneys for black students in their districts to bear the burden of proving that the districts have failed to meet desegregation obligations.

Pulaski Special, Jacksonville and the McClendon intervenors who represent black students in the two districts are the only remaining parties in what is a 37-year-old lawsuit. The judge has scheduled an Oct. 5 hearing on unitary status for the Jacksonville/North Pulaski district.

Attorneys for the two districts argued to Marshall that the districts only bear the burden of proving their compliance in areas where they violated the U.S. Constitution. The attorneys contend that the districts have "never been found to be constitutionally deficient in the areas of student achievement, discipline or monitoring."

Instead, those are contractual matters and the McClendon intervenors have the responsibility of proving any failures by the districts, attorneys for the districts argued.

"With half a century's worth of settlements, decrees, stipulations, legal opinions, and agreements to review in preparing this motion, undersigned has engaged in a good faith search for any legally binding document showing unconstitutional conduct by PCSSD in the areas of student achievement, discipline, and monitoring. None could be found," attorneys for the two districts wrote.

The attorneys told Marshall that any disagreement about adherence to contract terms puts the burden of proof on the party that claims there is a breach.

"In this proceeding, intervenors are claiming that PCSSD and JNPSD have not complied with their obligations in the areas of student achievement, discipline and monitoring," the attorneys wrote. "Intervenors bear the burden of proof on the issues of student achievement, discipline and monitoring. "

Attorneys for the Pulaski Special district are Sam Jones, Amanda Orcutt, Devin Bates, Jay Bequette and Cody Kees.

Scott Richardson is the attorney for the Jacksonville district.

Attorneys for the McClendon intervenors are Austin Porter Jr., Robert Pressman, Shawn Childs and Lawrence Walker.

The McClendon attorneys will have the opportunity in the coming days to respond to all of the motions submitted by the school districts.

FACILITIES

In regard to the specific issue of school facilities, the Pulaski Special district attorneys filed a motion Monday asking the judge to limit his focus to whether the district constructed a new Mills High for $50 million and converted the former Mills High into a middle school for $5 million.

The attorneys argued that the McClendon intervenors "conducted broad, unrestricted discovery that was at best a fishing expedition. The discovery goes way beyond the scope of the remaining issues to be tried," the Pulaski Special attorneys said.

WITNESSES

Additionally, the Pulaski County Special School District filed motions to prevent the MClendon intervenors from calling Rizelle Aaron, a former desegregation monitor for the intervenors, to testify at the summer court hearing regarding the Pulaski Special district's compliance with its desegregation plan.

"Mr. Aaron, a North Little Rock resident, has had only limited direct contact with PCSSD since the Jacksonville detachment," the Pulaski Special attorneys argued to Marshall, adding that Aaron's role in the case ended in early 2014 when he stopped serving as a monitor.

"The majority of Mr. Aaron's contact with PCSSD appears to be through fielding phone calls from community members and employees who allegedly make complaints to him," the attorneys said. "Mr. Aaron should be precluded from testifying at trial because any testimony he may offer is either unfairly prejudicial or inadmissible hearsay.

The Pulaski Special district attorneys have also asked Marshall to place limits on the testimony of Rep. Joy Springer, D-Little Rock, who is a longtime desegregation monitor in Pulaski County area schools for the McClendon intervenors, who were previously labeled the Joshua intervenors.

"Ms. Springer is not an expert witness, rather, she is a fact witness who may testify only about her personal knowledge," the attorneys said.

The attorneys asked Marshall to issue an order to prevent Springer from offering "any expert testimony or any testimony based on specialized knowledge."

The Pulaski Special attorneys said the McClendon intervenors' legal team did not identify Springer or anyone else as an expert witness for the hearing by a deadline that has passed. Identification of an expert witness includes a showing at that time of the person's qualifications.

"The evidentiary requirements for expert witnesses set forth in [federal rules] have not been met with respect to Ms. Springer," the attorneys said.

"In her most recent deposition on May 15, 2020, Ms. Springer discussed her extensive training and education in areas relevant to this case and appeared to apply that training to her interpretation of whether PCSSD was compliant with certain aspects of Plan 2000, the Pulaski Special attorneys wrote to the judge. "Because Ms. Springer is a fact witness, she must be precluded from offering any opinions based on her specialized knowledge, even if those opinions are also based on her personal knowledge."

Metro on 06/02/2020

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