(CN) - A federal judge did not have the authority to remove millions of dollars in Arkansas desegregation funding for three school districts in the Little Rock area, the 8th Circuit ruled.
The St. Louis, Mo.-based court's order will ensure that Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County Special school districts will continue to receive about $38 million annually for their desegregation programs until Arkansas asks a federal judge to discontinue them.
Finding that the districts had delayed desegregation efforts so that they could keep collecting state funds under a "carrot and stick approach," U.S. District Judge Brian Miller slashed the payments in May.
The 8th Circuit stayed Miller's order about a month later.
In total, Arkansas has doled out more than $980 million to the districts since 1989.
The funds cover operating costs, transportation, teacher retirement and health benefits, and majority-to-minority student transfers.
The districts maintain that the funding is necessary, but Miller, who referred to himself as "a middle aged black judge," wrote that the public schools lacked "any clue how to effectively educate underprivileged black children."
After the Arkansas took over Miller's hometown school district, Helena-West Helena, Miller said he could no longer make unbiased decisions because of "deeply held personal opinions," and recused himself from the case.
A three-judge panel of the 8th Circuit seemed sympathetic in its latest decision on the case. "The District Court's frustration is understandable, and its conclusions regarding the perverse incentives created by the state's funding may well have some merit," Judge Raymond Gruender wrote for the court. "Nevertheless, notice and a formal hearing are required before the court terminates a constitutional violator's desegregation obligations."
"If the state wishes to obtain relief from its funding obligations, there must be a formal evidentiary hearing on the issue 'followed by comprehensive and detailed findings of fact and conclusions of law,' as envisioned by Jenkins [v. Missouri] and Liddell [v. Board of Education of the City of St. Louis]. We express no opinion on what the outcome of such a hearing should be."
Miller also erred in denying unitary status, or desegregation compliance, to North Little Rock based on staff recruitment, the court held. As required by a 1992 plan, the district properly increased the number of black teachers, principals and administrators it employed, and it hired a labor economist.
Miller had ruled that North Little Rock lacked proper documentation of employment offers to black teachers, and he required the district to keep more detailed records over a two-year period.
"While the goal of documenting compliance over time is a laudable one, the District Court abused its discretion by imposing new data collection and reporting requirements with respect to staff recruitment that were not agreed to by the parties," Gruender wrote.
Finding that the Pulaski County Special District made no efforts to fulfill a plan adopted in 2000, the panel rejected its petition for unitary status.
"A constitutional violator seeking relief from a desegregation plan adopted as a consent decree must show that it 'complied in good faith with the desegregation decree since it was entered' and that 'the vestiges of past discrimination ha[ve] been eliminated to the extent practicable,'" Gruender wrote, citing Freeman v. Pitts.
"PCSSD has done nothing to demonstrate to the public and the parents and students of the once disfavored race that it intends to honor its commitment in good faith," he added.
"We reverse the partial denial of NLRSD's petition and direct the district court to declare unitary status for NLRSD, affirm the partial denial of PCSSD's petition for unitary status, vacate the portion of the order terminating the state's funding obligations, and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion," the Dec. 28 decision states.