By KELLY P. KISSEL
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Like any lawyer engaged in settlement talks, Attorney General Dustin McDaniel tries to get the best possible deal by casting the other side's position in the worst possible light.
If he's right, the Little Rock School District could be taking a big gamble by withholding full approval of a deal that would end years of extra state payments to boost desegregation. If he is wrong, the district's gamble could be worth it.
As it has been for more than 30 years, the state of Arkansas is engaged in a court fight with three Little Rock-area school systems that have struggled to achieve and maintain a racial balance, and since 1989, legislators have appropriated $1 billion to help fight segregation.
Now lawmakers want the payments to stop and two districts are willing to see them end after checks are cut over the next 4 1/2 years. The Little Rock School District, which receives the biggest share of the pie, agrees in principle but wants a group of school patrons to agree, too. A motion to move forward without the patrons didn't receive a second at a board meeting Thursday.
The patrons, known as the Joshua Intervenors and represented in court by a lawyer who is also a state representative, say more must still be done to aid black students.
"These children still don't have the same opportunity and outcomes as children of the majority race," Rep. John Walker, D-Little Rock, told members of the Legislative Council.
The 1989 settlement that called on Arkansas to give the Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County Special school districts extra money to aid desegregation efforts doesn't have a sunset clause, so payments have grown to almost $70 million a year.
On the table 24 years later is a deal hammered out among lawyers for the three districts and McDaniel - four more years of payments at the current level, with the Year Four cash dedicated to academic facilities rather than integration.
Absent an agreement, the parties will be in federal court on Dec. 9 on the state's request to end the payments altogether. And that's where McDaniel believes he has a trump card.
U.S. District Judge Brian Miller, echoing sentiments rooted in previous court opinions, ordered an end to the payments in 2011. In many more words, he said the districts had figured out that, by failing to meet targets, they could still receive money - a situation he called "absurd."
The 8th Circuit overruled Miller, saying the parties hadn't had a full hearing on whether the payments should stop, but McDaniel often falls back on language from Miller's would-be order: "It seems that the State of Arkansas is using a carrot and stick approach with these districts but that the districts are wise mules that have learned how to eat the carrot and sit down on the job. ...
"The time has finally come for all carrots to be put away. These mules must now either pull their proverbial carts on their own or face a very heavy and punitive stick," Miller wrote.
A different judge is now on the case and has refused to delay the hearing. McDaniel told legislators this week that since one federal judge was already OK with ending the payments immediately, it shouldn't be hard to convince another.
Under the deal's terms, Pulaski County would likely still engage in desegregation efforts because it hasn't yet been declared fully integrated as the other districts have. Still pending in Pulaski County are questions about its facilities, discipline and student achievement.
Also, the state would be able to allow the creation of a Jacksonville School District, carved from the Pulaski County district, and money would be dedicated, for a limited time, to the continued use of magnet schools and student transfers to schools where they would be in the minority.
And, a key point for McDaniel, the districts would give up their right to sue again.
The Legislative Council set a Tuesday night deadline for the Little Rock School District to get on board, and the Little Rock board has scheduled a Monday meeting to consider whether they will sign on with or without the Joshua Intervenors. McDaniel says he believes the judge would approve the agreement if all three districts approve it even if the Joshua group does not.
The possible outcomes over the next five weeks: An agreement is approved for the districts to receive $280 million over the next four years, a court order grants continued funding into perpetuity or the payments' immediately end.
So, is the Little Rock School District taking a gamble worthy of a lottery promotion?
You bet, but like all games of chance, only time will tell if theirs is a risk worth taking.
Kissel has been Arkansas news editor for The Associated Press since 1994. Follow him at www.twitter.com/kisselAP
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