Chief U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. said Friday at the end of a two-week hearing on the Jacksonville/North Pulaski School District's desegregation efforts that a decision on the matter can't be hurried.
"This is not something that needs to be rushed," Marshall told the attorneys for the Jacksonville and Pulaski County Special school districts as well as for the intervenors who represent the class of all Black students in the two districts.
"It's too serious a business, these children's minds and lives that are in our hands," Marshall said. "The issues are serious. There is legal complexity here that I need to sort through."
Both the Jacksonville and Pulaski Special districts have asked Marshall, the presiding judge in a nearly 38-year-old federal school desegregation lawsuit, to find that the school systems have met their desegregation obligations, declare them unitary and release them from further court monitoring of their operations.
Attorneys for the McClendon intervenors -- the class of Black students formerly known as the Joshua intervenors in the lawsuit -- have argued that the two districts have not complied with the provisions of the desegregation Plan 2000 and related court orders and, as a result, should not yet be released from court monitoring.
Marshall held a three-week hearing on the Pulaski Special district's unitary status motion in July.
The Jacksonville/North Pulaski district was carved out of the Pulaski County Special School District and began operating on its own in 2016 -- with the condition that it meet the same desegregation obligations that Pulaski County Special district had yet to meet.
Each of the two districts is independently responsible for its compliance with Plan 2000, and the obligations the districts have to meet are slightly different. The Jacksonville district seeks unitary status on staffing incentives, student achievement discipline practices and self-monitoring of desegregation efforts. The Pulaski Special district seeks unitary status on equitable school buildings as well as student achievement, discipline practices and self-monitoring.
However, the two cases are heavily intertwined, so much so that an attorney from one district has attended and participated in the other district's court hearing and vice versa. Additionally, the representatives of the districts and intervenors are under court order to meet regularly on the desegregation obligations.
"I want counsel to know and be assured that I have treasured my time in the courtroom with you on this," Marshall said. "Each side has worked very hard putting the case together, and I admire the disagreements that counsel have had -- and there are disagreements -- and the cooperation that I have seen. Both are in the finest tradition of what it means to be a lawyer, and of course y'all have done all of the hard work and pulled things together for me, educating me about this. I will do the best I can in due course."
The judge said he has a number of criminal and civil trials scheduled in the coming months in which he will preside while also working on decisions or orders in the school desegregation cases.
Marshall has been the presiding judge for nine years in the lawsuit that was first filed by the Little Rock School District in 1982 against the Pulaski County Special and North Little Rock districts and the state of Arkansas. The Little Rock and North Little Rock districts and the state were released from the case in past years.
Each of the former presiding judges -- U.S. District Judges Henry Woods, Susan Webber Wright, Billy Roy Wilson and Brian Miller -- and one or more of their orders came up during Friday's lengthy closing arguments.
In his arguments to Marshall, Scott Richardson who represents the nearly 4,000-student Jacksonville district, recalled that Miller asked attorneys at a hearing in the case whether a Black child must sit next to a white child to learn. All the attorneys said "no," Richardson recalled.
Richardson highlighted the recent testimony from school district administrators and principals on the initiatives to raise student achievement and eliminate any discriminatory discipline practices, as well as offer incentives to people to become state-licensed teachers.
"It's a continual process of strategic planning, leadership teams, PLCs and RTI teams," Richardson said. "All these educators are all in it together to look at the data continually to improve instruction, to improve discipline process.
"It's just a part of the process of education in Jacksonville/North Pulaski," he said. It's extremely clear that it is a unitary system in which there is no segregation or discrimination against African-American students."
Devin Bates, attorney for the Pulaski County Special district, emphasized in his remarks that there is no requirement in the desegregation plan that the districts must close the racial achievement and discipline disparity gaps to be declared unitary.
Robert Pressman, an attorney for the McClendon intervenors -- participating in the hearing over the phone from his home in Lexington, Mass. -- also drew from the recent testimony of district educators and the reams of exhibits to point out the low achievement levels of both Black and white students in the new school district.
Pressman argued that the district knows that targeted interventions can rectify the disparity gaps.
"It requires backs be bent to that effort," he said, and questioned later how much time should the district be allowed "to create a quilt of all the initiatives we have heard about."
"I'm a fan of quilts," Marshall interrupted, and asked Pressman how long the intervenors think the district should be given "to stitch together" its programs. Pressman said at one point that unitary status can't be granted "on the hope that the quilt will come together," nor can it be granted based on the belief of Jacksonville witnesses that results from the 2020 ACT Aspire exams -- cancelled this year because of the covid-19 pandemic -- would have shown academic improvement.
The judge questioned how to factor in the covid-19 virus and the lack of annual student testing.
"The Court can't pretend the tests happened," Marshall said.
Austin Porter Jr, the lead attorney for the intervenors, told the judge that the Jacksonville district does not like Plan 2000 that it inherited in the split from the Pulaski Special district, but the district is obliged to comply with its terms.
He also said the district "gets no brownie points" for arguing that there is no segregation or discrimination in the system, as that is required of every school system in the nation. Instead, the Jacksonville district must meet the requirements of the desegregation plan, he said.
In response to Richardson's question about whether a Black child must sit next to a white child to learn, Porter told the judge the answer is "yes" -- that society benefits "when we as groups come together and know one another." He said the nation is "sitting on a powder keg" right now in regard to racial tensions.
Porter said four to six years might be an adequate time for the district's academic and discipline programs to prove themselves -- to reach at point where 75 percent of students are scoring at grade level. He also suggested that selecting two or three initiatives to do well might be a benefit.
Richardson told the judge Friday, as he has done throughout the hearing, that it is poverty not race that can hinder student learning and discipline, and that Black students are more likely to come from low-income families.
Richardson said Jacksonville educators are committed to educating all their students and they don't lower their expectations for those in poverty.