A three-week federal court hearing on whether the Pulaski County Special School District is eligible for unitary status and release from federal court monitoring will conclude today with closing arguments from the three parties in the 37-year-old lawsuit.
On Thursday, attorneys for black students known as the McClendon intervenors called a final witness, Nicole Townsend, to testify on the topic of student achievement in the 12,000-student Pulaski County district. However, Austin Porter Jr., the lead attorney for the intervenors, stopped short of "resting" or declaring his witness testimony completed, saying he wants testimony on the condition of the district's school buildings from the court desegregation expert Margie Powell.
Powell, who has testified in the hearing on different subjects, became ill Tuesday and her availability for further testimony was not known Thursday.
Porter told U.S. Chief District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr., the presiding judge in the case, that he would prefer to question Powell in person about the school buildings and possibly district procedures for self monitoring of desegregation efforts. In the alternative, Porter and Jay Bequette, an attorney for the district, said that an agreement between them on what Powell would say on the stand or a video of Powell answering their questions from a remote location could suffice.
Marshall asked that attorneys pursue the options over the next couple of weeks..
"I would like to get started," the judge said about writing and issuing a decision on the matter. The judge also suggested that Powell's testimony could be heard in October, when a second court hearing -- this one on the unitary status for the Jacksonville/North Pulaski School District -- is scheduled.
At issue this month has been whether the Pulaski district has met the requirements of its desegregation plan, Plan 2000, and related documents in regard to student achievement, the condition of school buildings, student discipline and self monitoring of desegregation efforts.
District representatives contend that the district has, in good faith, substantially complied and deserves to be released from further reporting to the court on its operations.
The McClendon intervenors -- formerly known as the Joshua intervenors -- argue that the district has not met its obligations and/or has initiatives that are too new to evaluate, so it is not ready for release from court oversight.
Townsend's testimony Thursday centered on her work in 2017-18 as one of five academic program managers who provided support in core subjects to instructional coaches, principals and teachers.
"Things were progressing," Townsend said about the work of the program administrators, including the training they were providing to teachers and others. She said instruction was aligned to standards, that student needs were being met and there was great buy-in from teachers and instructional coaches.
"From my experience as an educator ... closing the achievement gap would not have been a problem," Townsend said.
Townsend and most of the other program administrators lost their positions in the district as the result of budget cuts in 2018, although Townsend disagreed Thursday that the budget was the reason. She and others have since sued district leaders for race discrimination
In the past three weeks, about 14 people have testified -- most of them district employees and some of them multiple times -- in a hearing that was divided into four "mini-trials." There was one mini-trial for each of the four areas of operation under court monitoring.
In preparation for today's closing arguments, Marshall allotted the attorney team for the Pulaski County district -- Bequette, Devin Bates and Amanda Orcutt -- 1½ hours to tie all the pieces together for unitary status. Scott Richardson; an attorney for the Jacksonville/North Pulaski District, has half an hour; and Porter and co-counsel Robert Pressman have up to two hours to sum up their case for the intervenors.
In their closing statements, the attorneys are expected to address some disputes that have come up before and during the hearing.
Those disputes include the question of which party has the burden of proof -- the districts or the intervenors. Richardson, the attorney for the Jacksonville district, is expected to focus largely on that today because it affects his clients' case in October, as well as the Pulaski district case.
There are also disputes over whether racial gaps in student achievement and student discipline should be measured in terms of Black and white students or Black and non-Black students, which covers white as well as all other races or ethnicities.
Also in some dispute and likely to be addressed is whether a 2014 agreement between the parties to build a new Mills High and renovate a building for Mills Middle School is sufficient to meet the provision in the district's desegregation plan calling for the district to have a plan so that existing facilities are clean, safe, attractive and equal.
Another matter is how far the district's establishment of a $10 million Charles W. Donaldson Scholars Academy -- a summer, after-school and weekend college preparatory program -- goes toward meeting the desegregation Plan 2000 obligations on student achievement.