WATCH: Desegregation at standstill as schools, NAACP await ruling

Marsalis Weatherspoon, president of NAACP Unit No. 6013, talks about the status of the Garland County Desegregation Case Comprehensive Settlement Agreement while at The Sentinel-Record offices. (The Sentinel-Record/Lance Brownfield)

A motion by the seven Garland County school districts on Aug. 31 to terminate the Garland County Desegregation Case Comprehensive Settlement Agreement has yet to find a resolution, according to representatives on both sides.

The school districts, collectively known as the Garland County Education Consortium, filed the motion citing compliance under the agreement. Hot Springs school superintendent and president of the consortium, Stephanie Nehus, said there have been no new developments and it is currently a "waiting process" with the federal court.

The plaintiff's attorney, Q. Byrum Hurst Jr., said the same, noting on Tuesday, "We have now replied to the school districts' motion and are waiting for the judge to make a ruling or set the matter for a hearing."

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Unit No. 6013, the plaintiff in the case, filed a motion response on Oct. 13, and said in a statement that "across Garland County, we continue to see de facto segregation, a lack of hiring of certified minority staff, and a persistent academic achievement gap between Black students and their counterparts."

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"It's sitting on (Chief Judge Susan O. Hickey's) desk is all I know," NAACP President Marsalis Weatherspoon said. "We haven't heard anything one way or the other on it, so it's kind of at a standstill at this moment in time. But it is ongoing and we're kind of at the beginning of things right now."

The 1992 agreement placed race-based limitations on school transfers and ordered the districts to meet certain obligations, such as meeting at least semiannually to discuss enrollment fluctuations, and recording ratios of Black students to white students.

The schools argued they have complied with their obligations under the agreement and eliminated "vestiges of past discrimination."

"That was our question and frustration with all of this is that we already have a settlement," Weatherspoon said.

"We already have an agreement, so why do we need to do anything further? Because there were conversations about, 'Well, we can do a trial run without this agreement in place, and we can see how it goes, and the districts can kind of self-police their deseg numbers.' And my question is like, 'Why would we do that when we have the force of this consent agreement behind us?'

"Why come up with something else when we've had something that's worked for 30 years?"

While noting the obligations consist of a lot of bureaucracy and paperwork, he said he believes the alternative is even "more bleak and more grim."

"We were already seeing the de facto segregation we're seeing, so imagine taking the guidelines and taking the strictures that are already in place, taking that out of the equation, it could be even worse than it already is, from our vantage," he said.

Weatherspoon also cites a nationwide push toward charter schools as a concern, particularly in Arkansas with the implementation of the LEARNS Act.

"Betsy DeVos, who was the outgoing secretary of education under Trump, that was her big push was charter schools," he said.

DeVos served as U.S. education secretary from 2017-2021 and is known for her conservative political activism, as well as her support for school choice, school voucher programs, and charter schools.

"Our current ADE commissioner, (Jacob) Oliva, he came from Florida, and we're seeing a lot of policy come from Florida. We've taken their lead on a lot of things. So we're seeing a nationwide return to conditions prior to the Brown vs. Board of Education decision," he said.

He said people should "zoom out" and realize the push to end consent agreements and desegregation orders. He cites former state education secretary Johnny Key's August 2022 memo, which directed the Arkansas State Board of Education to include in the Standards for Accreditation a provision regarding the attainment of unitary status for school districts that have not been released from court supervision over desegregation obligations.

The memo states each public school district that has not obtained full and complete unitary status, nor has been released from court-supervised desegregation obligations, should seek to do so. It further notes that beginning Sept. 15 of each year, they must submit written quarterly reports detailing their progress.

Garland County school districts are the only remaining districts in the state to not reach full unitary status, and are subject to probation under the Arkansas Department of Education.

"As it relates to Garland County, I've heard from the school superintendents that their accreditation is under scrutiny that if they don't remove these deseg orders that they could lose accreditation," he said.

"So that's something that they've brought to our attention. And even the LEARNS Act, there's a carve-out for these deseg orders. So to me, it seems odd that the ADE, which is performing the deseg monitoring, would knowingly remove the accreditation of a school district where deseg monitoring is going on," Weatherspoon said.

"So does the right hand not know what the left hand is doing, or what?"