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A federal judge Tuesday ordered the Joshua intervenors, who represent the class of black students in a long-running lawsuit involving the Pulaski County Special School District, to find modern-day representatives for the class.

U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. directed attorneys for the Joshua intervenors -- who are led by Rep. John Walker, D-Little Rock, to nominate at least two people by Sept. 17 to represent the class of all black students and families in the Pulaski County Special district.

The directive was part of a five-page order Tuesday in which Marshall approved and tentatively approved class representatives for the new Jacksonville/North Pulaski School District, which became a party in the 35-year-old federal school desegregation lawsuit after detaching from the Pulaski County Special system in 2016.

Attorneys for the Jacksonville/North Pulaski district had complained to the judge several months ago that the Joshua intervenors included no class representatives from the Jacksonville district.

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Order from federal judge on setting tour of public school facilities in the Pulaski County Special School District

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Order from federal judge on makeup of the Joshua intervenors

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"The dispute about the JNPSD sub-class representative also revealed something about the original class representatives -- the Joshua intervenors -- who stepped forward more than three decades ago," Marshall wrote in Tuesday's order.

"All those individuals have either passed away, moved out of the districts or lost touch with class counsel. PCSSD's black students, their parents and those acting in loco parentis for them need representatives," he wrote.

Class representatives serve as the client and as a liaison between them and their attorneys in a lawsuit that has been filed on behalf of a large group of people who contend that they have similarly suffered from a wrongdoing or violation by another entity.

Attorneys for the 12,000-student Pulaski County Special district will have the opportunity after Sept. 17 to question the Joshua-nominated class representatives, Marshall said.

The district's objections to or its agreements on the intervenor nominees are due to the judge by Nov. 16.

Walker was in court Tuesday afternoon and unavailable, and he could not be reached for comment at his office.

More than a dozen people are listed as "plaintiff intervenors" in the 1982 case that for many years also involved the Little Rock and North Little Rock school districts, as well as state education leaders and leaders of local teacher associations -- in addition to the Pulaski County Special district and the Joshua intervenors.

Lorene Joshua heads that list of plaintiff intervenors represented by Walker and his legal team -- hence the name Joshua intervenors. Joshua, who died in 2015, was the mother of 10 and for many years was president of the North Little Rock chapter of the NAACP.

Others on the plaintiff intervenor list include Robert Willingham, a longtime pastor, and Sarah Matthews, who was an activist parent and grandparent for many years in the Little Rock School District.

Sam Jones, an attorney for the Pulaski County Special district, said Tuesday that Walker has raised the issue of a new class of representatives with Jones in the past, going so far as to even suggest names.

"It is an issue where he and I should be able to get to a point that I can make a recommendation to our board and superintendent, and try to avoid a court dispute about it," Jones said. "Somebody will get substituted; it's just a question of who."

Marshall in his order Tuesday approved the selection of Tiffany Ellis to represent the class of all black families living in the new Jacksonville/North Pulaski School District, which is a relatively recent addition to the parties in the 35-year-old lawsuit.

The judge tentatively approved Takeena Wilbon to be a second representative of Jacksonville district families -- but Wilbon's appointment is conditioned on attorneys for the school district having the opportunity to question her and submit any objections about her selection to the judge.

Marshall overruled the Jacksonville district's objection to Ellis.

In April, Scott Richardson, an attorney for the Jacksonville district, argued against Ellis' designation as an intervenor, saying that she was unfamiliar with the term "unitary status," had not read the court orders and had no knowledge of the district's desegregation plan obligations.

However, the judge noted that Ellis is the mother of twins who have been students in Jacksonville-area schools for several years. Ellis has served in several school-related roles, paid and unpaid, including as PTA president. She has said her concerns about education go beyond that of just her sons to that of all children.

"The Court has studied her deposition, plus all the other materials submitted," he wrote. "Would she adequately represent this group? Yes," he said.

The judge noted that the lawsuit has reached a stage in which the focus is on the district's efforts to meet desegregation obligations regarding academic achievement, discipline, facilities, monitoring and staffing.

"Because this case is so far down the road, the fighting issues are fewer," he wrote. "Ellis will thus have a smaller role with fewer decisions, albeit important ones."

He also said that while Ellis "can and will vigorously protect the sub-class members' interests," her knowledge of the lawsuit "is too limited" and "she must deepen and broaden her understanding of the case."

He said Ellis must provide a check on the legal counsel for the intervenors.

Marshall praised Walker and co-counsel Robert Pressman, saying their experience, abilities and credentials are beyond dispute.

"Mr. Walker has devoted much of his professional life to school desegregation in our State. One could say with truth that this is his lawsuit. But the deeper truth is that this case belongs to JNPSD's non-white students and the adults who care for them," Marshall wrote. "Ellis now has a fiduciary obligation to all those people. She must, of course, rely on counsel's expertise, but she must also question and second-guess them.

"They're the coaches; she's now the team's owner," he said. "Her deposition makes plain that she's quite capable of challenging persons with expertise and authority when she believes confrontation is necessary. That's the kind of check she must provide on counsel, as she stands up for these students and their families. They come first, not the lawyers, notwithstanding counsel's good intentions."

As for Wilbon, the mother of three, the judge said circumstances that included a tornado threat prevented her from being interviewed by Jacksonville district attorneys earlier this year regarding her suitability to be a class representative. She was nominated for the role by the Joshua intervenors.

Marshall gave the Jacksonville district's attorney until Sept. 17 to interview Wilbon and submit any objections to her involvement in the case to him by Oct. 17.

Richardson, the attorney for the Jacksonville district, said he appreciated Marshall's comments about the ownership of the case by Jacksonville's black students and parents.

"I think it is important that African-American students and the adults who care for them in Jacksonville have a real voice in the case," Richardson said. "I hope this brings that result. I don't think it is right for a lawyer to run the litigation. He needs clients that he answers to."

A Section on 07/18/2018

Print Headline: Judge: Freshen schools' suit class

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