BY STATE SENATOR LARRY TEAGUE –
LITTLE ROCK – In a development that has financial implications for every school district in Arkansas, the parties in the 30-year old Pulaski County desegregation case have all agreed to end the suit.
Under terms of a 1989 settlement, state government pays about $70 million a year to the three school districts in Pulaski County. They are the Little Rock, North Little Rock and the Pulaski County Special School Districts. Among other uses, the districts spent the money on magnet schools and student transfers that further desegregation.
Under the new agreement, the state will make four more yearly payments of $65.8 million to the three districts. In the fourth and final year, the districts must use the money for improvements to academic facilities.
Since the 1989 settlement was approved, the state has paid the three school districts more than $1 billion. That money otherwise would have flowed into the fund that pays for other state services and programs, such as public education, prisons, colleges and universities, and state agencies.
After the state pays its final installment to the Pulaski County school districts in the 2107-2018 school year, the state treasury won’t immediately be boosted by $65.8 million a year. That’s because a repeal of the state sales tax on groceries would be triggered, as authorized by Act 1450 of 2013. The act eliminates what remains of the food tax, except for a 1/8 percent conservation tax approved by Arkansas voters, after state financial obligations like the Pulaski County desegregation case are gone.
The remainder of the food tax that would be repealed now brings in about $45 million a year in general and special revenue.
A significant consequence of the new agreement is that the Little Rock School District will cease to file legal challenges to new charter schools. In recent years, while the case has been under federal court jurisdiction, Little Rock has filed briefs challenging the state Board of Education’s approval of charters in Pulaski County, contending that the new charters impeded efforts to desegregate schools in the county.
The state attorney general, who represents the state in suit, was instrumental in arranging the new settlement and called it a historic milestone. The troubled history of integration in Little Rock began in 1957, when nine African-American students first attended Little Rock Central High School.
The state’s liability began at the same time. For example, in reaction to the integration of Central High School, the state passed laws that led to the closing of all four Little Rock high schools in 1958-1959 school year. Two high schools, Central and Hall, were for white students. One was a vo-tech for white students and one high school, Horace Mann, was for black students.
White and black students had to make arrangements to attend neighboring districts or out-of-town schools where relatives lived. Some had to leave the state and many students did not attend school at all that year, which is commonly known as “the Lost Year” by Arkansas historians.
Former Governor Jim Guy Tucker was a student at Little Rock Hall High School in the 1958-1959 school year, and his family had to make other arrangements that year.