A lawsuit over restrictions that the state has imposed on the Little Rock School District can move forward in circuit court, the Arkansas Supreme Court said in an opinion issued Thursday that also narrowed the scope of the complaint that will be able to proceed.
Attorneys for a group of district parents and grandparents sued Arkansas Education Commissioner Johnny Key and the seven-member state Board of Education in March 2020, asking the court to end the constraints from the state that the plaintiffs argued are unlawful after five years of state control.
The state attorney general's office appealed to the high court Pulaski County Circuit Judge Mary McGowan's denial of a motion from the state to dismiss the case because, the state claimed, the defendants have sovereign immunity. Both sides gave oral arguments to the Arkansas Supreme Court on the appeal earlier this month.
In the majority opinion written by Justice Rhonda Wood, the court said that because the complaint against the state defendants involves a direct challenge to the constitutionality of state law, it surmounts a sovereign-immunity defense at the current stage of the lawsuit.
The parent group alleged that the Arkansas Educational Support and Accountability Act, which allowed state regulators to take control of the Little Rock school system in 2015, is an unconstitutional delegation of legislative power. The opinion says that allegation states a claim upon which relief can be granted, though the court declined to decide the merits of the constitutional challenge at the present stage in the legal proceedings.
However, the state Supreme Court reversed and dismissed the circuit court's ruling that two of the lawsuit's claims -- that the state Board of Education failed to promulgate exit criteria in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act and that no statute authorized restrictions on the Little Rock school board after five years -- did surmount sovereign immunity because the circuit court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction, and because state law gives the state Board of Education broad authority to control districts in need of intensive support.
"We are pleased the Court agreed with our two main arguments raised in the appeal and are working with our clients to determine the next appropriate step," Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said in a statement Thursday.
Ross Noland, attorney for the parent group, said he was pleased with the outcome of the appeal because it means the question of whether the law that allows the state to impose restrictions on the Little Rock district is unconstitutional can continue to be heard in court.
The lawsuit argues that the Arkansas Educational Support and Accountability Act is unconstitutional because it violates the separation of powers.
"The Legislature is supposed to create the law, the Education Board is supposed to enforce it," Noland said. "That has been our contention all along, that five years means five years."
Under the Arkansas Educational Support and Accountability Act, if a public school district under state control has not demonstrated to the state Education Board that it has met the criteria to exit intensive support after five years, the state board "shall annex, consolidate, or reconstitute" the district.
While the Little Rock district was under state control, which the state initiated because of chronically low test scores at six of the district's 48 schools, Key acted in place of an elected school board.
At issue in the case are three restrictions that remain in place for the district after it elected a new School Board in 2020. The local board cannot fire the superintendent, recognize any labor unions or file any lawsuits without the state board's permission.
Three of the state Supreme Court's justices concurred and dissented with parts of the majority opinion.
Justice Karen Baker disagreed with the portion of the opinion that upholds the circuit court's denial of the state's motion to dismiss based on sovereign immunity and said she would reverse and dismiss that part as well. She cited a previous opinion, Board of Trustees of the University of Arkansas v. Andrews, which she said does not permit such a lawsuit "because the State cannot be sued under any circumstances -- never means never."
Justice Shawn Womack agreed with the majority's decision with the exception that he believed the state's appeal should have been dismissed for lack of appellate jurisdiction.
Justice Barbara Webb said she believed all of the claims in the lawsuit should be allowed to proceed. She said the majority opinion focuses on whether the parent group is challenging general or specific rules of an agency, making an unnecessary distinction and misapplying the court's standard of review.