School District Boundaries: Problems Past and Future
|School district boundaries in Pulaski County were at the heart of the litigation begun in 1982. As the City of Little Rock grows westward, there is potential for similar litigation in the future.|
To understand current problems as well as future prospects of the Little Rock School District (LRSD), one needs to be aware of Arkansas law governing the boundaries of public school districts. The law sets up a win-lose situation in Pulaski County. Perhaps a win-win situation is not possible. In any event, the Little Rock School District will continue to be the loser as things now stand.
What is happening is that the LRSD is experiencing an increase in children from families in poverty, mostly minority, at the same time that it is losing many of its affluent, high tax-paying patrons, mostly white, to west Little Rock and the Pulaski County Special School District (PCSSD).
For years the City of Little Rock has followed a vigorous annexation policy. At first blush, one might think that annexations would recapture some of the school district's white population. However, that is not the case because property annexed to the city does not become part of the Little Rock School District. The school district and the city are separate, distinct political subdivisions of the state. The city's board of directors has no authority over the school district, and the school district's board has no authority over the city's affairs.
It is relatively easy for a city to annex adjoining property. Under Arkansas law, only the annexing city and the owners of the affected property are required to consent to annexation by a city. Typically the owners of the annexed property request the annexation, desiring to obtain city services such as water, sewers, police, and fire protection, which are furnished to their property when it becomes part of the annexing city. The owners are often land developers and in many cases there is only one owner who alone can decide to request annexation.
In contrast, Arkansas Law provides that territory from one school district may not be annexed to another school district without the approval of the school board or patrons of the district losing territory. Every square inch of Pulaski County is included in one of the three school districts--Little Rock, North Little Rock, or the county. (See map in Appendix A.) South of the Arkansas River, the LRSD and the Pulaski County Special School District divide the territory. North of the river, the North Little Rock School District and the Pulaski County Special School District divide the territory. Because of financial considerations, it is unlikely that the county district would ever voluntarily cede any of its territory to the LRSD. Therefore, current Arkansas law provides no viable means to alter the present boundaries of the LRSD.
Since schools are largely financed by real property taxes, property in a district equals dollars to the district. Because real property taxation is based on assessed value, the higher the value, the more taxes for schools a parcel of property will produce. As newly-annexed property changes from timberland and farmland, which are assessed at a special low rate, to high-value residential lots and commercial tracts, the financial stakes to a school district become significant. In addition, because state funding for public education is based on the number of students enrolled in a school district, the new students from new housing developments also represent dollars.
When the policies or practices of a state government or local government have an adverse impact on desegregation efforts, a federal court has power to grant relief, including redrawing a school district's boundaries in order to counteract the effect of white migration. Because Arkansas law provides no viable means of altering the boundaries of the LRSD, in 1982 district officials filed a federal suit seeking consolidation of the three school districts in Pulaski County into a single district. This suit is the desegregation case which continues today in disputes over the 1989 settlement agreement. The initial order of the federal district court in Little Rock granted that remedy. However, that decision was reversed by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis as being too intrusive. The Eighth Circuit directed the district court to redraw the boundaries in accordance with specific instructions issued by the Eighth Circuit, including the transfer of the largely African-American Granite Mountain area from the LRSD to the Pulaski County district.
The district court then, after another hearing, ordered that the boundaries of the Little Rock School District, except for the Granite Mountain area, would thereafter be the same as ("coterminous" with) the boundaries of the City of Little Rock. That is, if the city's boundaries changed, the LRSD's boundaries automatically would change to coincide with them. Again the Eighth Circuit reversed the portion of the district court's order providing that the Little Rock School District boundaries would automatically change whenever the city annexed land. The boundaries of the school district were fixed by the Eighth Circuit as of June 19, 1986, and there they remain today despite the annexation of much land to the city since then.
In its decision fixing the district's boundaries, the Eighth Circuit stated that its remedy was a "full and sufficient correction of wrongs done in the past." The court went on to say, "If...some...governmental entity commits another constitutional violation in the future which has an interdistrict segregative effect, the courts will of course be open and able to order an appropriate remedy on proper proof. But at least for the time being, the boundary change between [the LRSD and the Pulaski County Special School District] must be a one-time change."1
|Inset: Little Rock Board of Directors Resolution #8950|
Some have urged the Little Rock School District to petition the federal court to expand its boundaries. The City of Little Rock is on record as favoring identical city and school district boundaries. Because the city provides water and other vital services to newly-annexed areas beyond the boundaries of the LRSD, areas sometimes viewed as havens of white flight, the city could be seen as aiding and abetting white flight and the resegregation of the LRSD. In an apparent attempt to shield the city from potential liability, on July 6, 1993, the city board adopted a resolution requesting that the school board petition the district court to change the school district boundaries to make them coincide with the city limits and to continue to seek such modifications annually.2
The largest and most significant area recently annexed to Little Rock is Chenal Valley on the city's western border, an upscale residential and commercial development consisting of approximately 2,800 acres. At the time it was annexed, Chenal Valley was an unpopulated forest. As expensive houses are built on expansive lots, this former woodland is rapidly becoming the home of affluent people, most of them white. Though Chenal Valley is in Little Rock, it is not in the Little Rock School District. Its residents have city services, but their children attend county schools.
The Chenal Valley annexation represents only a small percentage of the land lying to the west of Little Rock that has been owned for years by the Deltic Land and Timber Company--roughly 30,000 acres of undeveloped timberland. It is reasonable to predict that in the coming decades, much more of that land will be developed, dramatically changing the demography of Little Rock and Pulaski County.
Becoming part of a city with a well-established city government removes many problems a developer otherwise must address. The city government of Little Rock, for example, is experienced in dealing with all applicable local, state, and federal environmental standards that affect installation of water and sewer systems. Because of Little Rock's highly-rated fire department, city home owners pay lower insurance rates. An established zoning authority helps preserve the quality of life of residential and other areas. A large police department already exists, in contrast to a more limited county sheriff's department that must patrol a much larger territory outside city boundaries.
In the absence of such established city services, a developer has essentially two options. One is to let each buyer fend for him or herself in the absence of such services. The other is to incorporate a separate town and develop such city services--a possibility that presents a developer with a new set of daunting challenges and uncertainties over a period of many years.
City officials also have reason to favor annexation of a new development, such as Chenal Valley. On the edge of the city, Chenal was destined to become a functional part of the life of the city whether annexed or not. Annexation, then, would facilitate planning and coordinating of metropolitan growth, with the revenue base spreading as the city spread. Also, annexation is a way for a dynamic city to avoid becoming strangled by a ring of smaller, hostile municipalities on its borders.
In short, the annexation of Chenal Valley made sense to both Deltic Land and Timber Company and to the City of Little Rock.
Chenal Valley was annexed in 1989. Representatives of both sides appear to have approached annexation issues constructively and in good faith. City, county, and school officials realized that development of the area could have a negative effect on the desegregation efforts of both the Little Rock and Pulaski County school districts because it could change the racial makeup of both school districts. White families moving west to Chenal Valley, though not leaving the city, do move from the Little Rock district to the county school district, decreasing the number of white children in the Little Rock schools and increasing their number in the county district. Thoughtful individuals also realized that the more fundamental problem of segregation in housing patterns would be aggravated by a new area filled with large, expensive homes. Consequently, extensive annexation negotiations took place during which city officials and the developers sought ways to assure that Chenal Valley would not be virtually all white. The solution, agreed to by all, was to set aside some land for smaller lots and housing that would be affordable to lower income people.
An additional problem was that any school built by the county school district in Chenal Valley would be almost all white. To deal with this problem, the school districts agreed in the interdistrict desegregation plan (incorporated into the 1989 settlement agreement) that any school built in Chenal Valley would be an interdistrict school. The effect of interdistrict status is that, if a school is built, at least 40 percent of the seats will be reserved for African-American students, who may come from outside the district. African-American students from the Little Rock School District would be eligible to attend. To date, no public school has been built in Chenal.
There are no easy options for eliminating the problem created for the LRSD by the laws that govern school district boundaries in Arkansas.
One obvious option is the status quo. For the LRSD, the status quo will produce a growing, long-term imbalance in educational challenges and district financial resources. The school district's clientele will become, on average, less affluent and more educationally disadvantaged, its tax base diminishing as businesses and more affluent residents locate outside the district but, many of them, within the city.
A second option is to revise state law to make it possible to annex territory to the city and to the school district at the same time. Such law would potentially affect other Arkansas cities and their adjoining school districts.
A third option is a single school district south of the Arkansas River. At first glance, this option would be controversial. However, it may be the only option with the potential for being a win-win for the school children and the patrons of both districts.
It should be noted that this study focuses on the LRSD, and a recommendation for any merger proposal is beyond the scope of this study. Only these observations are offered on the subject:
Whatever one's view of the options, as the City of Little Rock continues to develop to the west, the stakes in boundary issues will continue to go up every year for both the LRSD and the county district. Time is compounding the problem.
1Little Rock School District v. Pulaski County Special School District, 805 F.2d 815, 816 (8th Cir. 1986).
2Resolution No. 8950, adopted by the Little Rock City Board of Directors on July 6, 1993. For a discussion of the issues from the city's point of view at the time of the annexation of Chenal Valley in 1989, see the interview of then-Mayor of Little Rock Buddy Villines in the Arkansas Gazette, January 29, 1989, C5.