Junction City School District will be required to allow the five students who have requested interdistrict transfers to go for the upcoming school year, which starts Monday.
Four school districts — Junction City, Hope, Camden Fairview and Lafayette County — were denied requests on Wednesday for a preliminary injunction that would have allowed them to not participate in school choice.
The ruling only relates to the 2018-19 school year. A larger court case is ongoing regarding all four districts participating in Arkansas School Choice Act interdistrict transfers, with the districts arguing that allowing students to cross district lines to attend schools will result in “white flight” and put them in conflict with federal court-ordered desegregation mandates. All four were denied or partially denied requests for exemption from the transfers by the Department of Education and the state Board of Education.
The four districts followed up by filing motions in their federal desegregation cases asking that Judge Susan O. Hickey either declare the School Choice Act program to be in conflict with the desegregation obligations or to direct that the districts’ desegregation orders be altered to reflect the School Choice Act provisions.
After the districts submitted those motions to Hickey, the state sought and received permission to intervene in the three federal desegregation cases in which it wasn’t already a party — Junction City, Hope and Lafayette County.
Hickey, who is presiding over all four cases, ruled that JCSD has not provided sufficient evidence that irreparable harm would happen if the district were not to participate in school choice for the coming school year.
“This argument, at this point, is too speculative, as the mere possibility of harm is inadequate to support a finding of irreparable harm,” Hickey wrote in her decision.
JCSD made the argument before the trial that participating in school choice would trigger “white flight” within the district.
In response, the Arkansas Department of Education and Arkansas State Board of Education argued that “the five transfers at issue would change the ratio of black students by 0.4 percent.”
During trial, according to Hickey’s decision, JCSD Superintendent Robby Lowe said the funding for 2018-19 school year is already in place and that the district will not suffer any immediate financial harm by needing to participate in school choice for the year. However, Lowe testified that JCSD may suffer financially in future years due to a reduction in the number of students.
"That's where you’d go anyway. If we'd gotten the injunction, we would be headed for a trial on the merits," JCSD attorney Allen P. Roberts said. "This is kind of an unusual situation. The nature of these, all four are the same, is that we filed a request for a judgement and then filed a motion saying 'We're so sure that we're going to win anyway, we're going to get hurt real bad if we don't get a order saying we're going to win before we actually go to trial' and that's where the injunction came in. Judge Hickey said 'I'm not convinced you're going to be hurt so bad therefore you're not going to get an injunction.' In other words, we were going to have a trial on the merits regardless.”
For the parents of one of the five students transferring out of Junction City, Wednesday's decision helped lift concerns they have had for the past two years.
Sarah McCoy said she and her husband had been waiting for two years to find out whether they could transfer their son, Dess, to the Parkers Chapel School District.
“The day that Junction City lost their School Choice exemption was the day our prayers had been answered,” she said. “Location has no way of knowing what is in the best interest of a child. ... It is so important for parents to have the opportunity to choose where their children will receive their education.”
McCoy said the couple had held their son back from starting kindergarten to try and see if they could successfully transfer out of the district.
“Living in a failing school district that did not participate in School Choice made my family feel so hopeless and uneasy, when it came to our son’s education,” she said. “As parents, you always hope and pray that you are making the right decisions for your children, to help them have a fulfilling and successful future in life. For Cole and I, we did not feel that Junction City School District was going to be able to provide that opportunity for Dess.”
McCoy specifically thanked both the state's assistant attorney general, Renae Hudson, and the office staff for their work on behalf of the families trying to leave the affected districts and said the family wishes for nothing but the best for Junction City schools and their students.
“After many sleepless nights, countless accusations, and a future of unknowns we can finally be at peace knowing we fought hard to do what we knew would best suit our son and so many others that were too terrified of backlash, and we succeeded,” she said.
Information and reporting from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and Kelsey Womack was used in this article.
Michael Shine may be reached at 870-862-6611 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter and like him on Facebook @MichaelAZShine for updates on Union County school news.