U.S. District Judge Brian S. Miller delved briefly Tuesday into the issue of Jacksonville's interest in forming a new public school system that would be independent of the Pulaski County Special School District.
The judge, who is presiding in this month's hearing on whether the 17,734-student Pulaski County district has met its school desegregation obligations, asked School Board member Bill Vasquez, who lives in Jacksonville, what the benefits to a new district would be.
"I've heard some things about the de-annexation of Jacksonville,” the judge said.
Three Jacksonville community leaders in December filed a friend-of-the-court brief asking that if Miller declares the county district unitary, that he also set up a process for establishing a new Jacksonville district. That could have included setting a date for a detachment election.
However, Miller indicated in a brief Jan. 4 order that he won't make any decision on Jacksonville matters until after he rules on the county district's motion for unitary status. Thirty days after that order is issued, the Pulaski County Special district must respond to the friend-of-the court brief, Miller directed.
Vasquez, who is the fourth of seven Pulaski County Special School Board members to testify in the three-week desegregation hearing, told the judge Tuesday that "local self rule” would be the advantage of a separate Jacksonville district to the city's residents.
Jacksonville prospered in the mid-20th century, Vasquez said, in part because of the establishment of Little Rock Air Force Base there.
Property-tax revenue generated in the area helped pay for the Pulaski County Special district schools built in rural areas that have become middle-class and affluent communities.
"A lot of the schools that were built in the '50s and '60s were basically built on the backs of the people of Jacksonville,” Vasquez said.
Now the Jacksonville area schools are in excess of 50 years old and are competing for students with new campuses in the neighboring Cabot School District. Jacksonville residents don't feel their city is "getting its due” from the Pulaski district, Vasquez said.
Miller also asked about the racial makeup of the Jacksonville area. Vasquez estimated that the city's population has a higher population of black residents than the Pulaski County Special District as a whole.
Besides Vasquez, others testifying Tuesday were June Elliott, deputy superintendent for learning services, and Bill Barnes, a 19-year principal at Mills University Studies High who retired in January as the district's secondary education director.
All three were called to the stand by John Walker, an attorney for the black students known as the Joshua intervenors who are challenging the district's assertions that it complies with its desegregation plan and should be released from any further court monitoring of district operations.
The district's desegregation plan includes sections on student achievement, student assignments to schools, operation of interdistrict schools that are open to students in the neighboring Little Rock and North Little Rock districts, student discipline, multicultural education, equitable distribution of school resources, staffing and school facilities.
In his questioning of witnesses, Walker has focused on:
The district's construction of a 1,500-student high school in Maumelle to replace the 391-student Oak Grove High.
The lack of significant renovations at College Station Elementary in southeast Pulaski County.
A need to do formal evaluations of programs that district officials say are meant to remedy the achievement and discipline disparities between the district's black and white students.
In regard to student achievement, Walker said the district is focusing on moving all students to at least a "proficient” or grade-level achievement standard on state Benchmark and End-of-Course exams.
He argued that the district should also work to reduce the gap in average numerical scores earned by black and white students on the tests.
Vasquez testified that the state Benchmark tests - no matter what the subject area - are literacy-based exams on which it would be difficult even for the state's lawmakers to achieve a proficient score. He did note that the percentage of county district students scoring at proficient or better has increased in recent years and that the racial achievement gap has been reduced at some grades and subjects.
A former district teacher, Vasquez attributed disparate discipline rates to the fact that students who have not mastered academic skills would rather be punished for misbehavior than singled out and embarrassed for poor achievement.
Elliott, hired last summer after previously working in the Cabot School District, testified that the Oak Grove High School has the capacity to hold 1,100 students.
Admitting that she was nervous, Elliott struggled to answer some of Walker's questions, including a request for the names of the district's four interdistrict schools.
She listed Baker and Chenal elementaries but couldn't name Clinton and Crystal Hill magnet elementaries, the district's two largest kindergarten-through-fifth-grade schools.
Barnes said it appeared to him that the school district "is going backwards” since the approval of the 2000 desegregation plan. He cited the loss of student enrollment and the employment of staff members who were not a part of the district 10 years ago and are unaware of the history.
Some of the district's personnel matters were brought out Tuesday. In response to Walker's questions, Elliott testified that she had recommended in late 2009 that Barnes be terminated. Barnes, however, said he was unaware of that.
Vasquez told the court that he once asked Michael Nellums, a district principal, to consider him for a half-time teaching position, but that Nellums declined. As a result, Vasquez said that he neither applied nor interviewed for the job.
Vasquez and Nellums, now the Mills principal, have often been on opposing sides of district issues, including last year's merger of the Jacksonville Middle Schools for Boys and Girls. Nellums headed the boys' school.