Court stops funding cuts to Little Rock schools

A federal appeals court Tuesday temporarily set aside a lower judge's ruling to cut most of Arkansas' desegregation funding to three Little Rock-area school districts, a move that likely means the payments will continue through the start of the upcoming school year.

In a brief order Tuesday, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted the Little Rock School District's request to issue a stay of U.S. District Judge Brian Miller's ruling. Miller had ordered an end to most of the $70 million a year that the Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County Special school districts receive for desegregation efforts.

The appeals court denied a request to expedite the schools' appeal. That means lawyers for the state and the schools might not argue the case in court until this fall, said Chris Heller, an attorney for the Little Rock schools.

The state had reduced its payments after Miller's ruling, which only kept in place funding that lets students who are in the majority at their school transfer to a school where they would be in the minority.

For now, the court stay allows Little Rock to keep receiving about $38 million in state desegregation funding. That's money he says is crucial to keeping teachers and programs.

"That was a nearly impossible task," Heller said. "There's no way to avoid having an impact on student's educations when you have to cut that much money that quickly."

Grant Tennille, a spokesman for Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe, said the state will comply with the order and continue the desegregation payments to the districts.

"There is a lot of uncertainty out there," Tennille said. "The appeal's going to continue and both the state and the districts have to plan for the day when this funding will end."

Aaron Sadler, spokesman for Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, said in a statement that the court order showed that the long-running court battle over the payments — which stem from a 1989 settlement — is far from over.

"This order demonstrates that there are legal issues still to be resolved," Sadler said. We will continue to work with the Department of Education to ensure that the State meets the educational needs of the students of these three districts."

Court battles over desegregation in Arkansas date back to 1957, when nine black students — dubbed the Little Rock Nine — famously integrated a city high school over the efforts of then-Gov. Orval Faubus.

In his ruling last month, Miller derided the payments as a "carrot and stick approach" in which the school districts "have learned how to eat the carrot and sit down on the job."

The judge temporarily left in place about $21 million a year for majority to minority transfers, which allow students in the three districts to go from a school where the race is the majority to a school where their race is a minority.