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Judge over 35-year-old central Arkansas desegregation case tours 3 schools

He investigates facilities with eye out for inequities

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Photographs by Staton Breidenthal

Scott Young with the Pulaski County Special School District leads U.S. District Judge D. Price Mar- shall Jr. (right), court reporter Christa Jacimore and others on a tour Thursday of the new Mills High School. The group toured three district schools Thursday.

U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr., the presiding judge in a long-running federal desegregation lawsuit, spent Thursday in school.

Leaving his traditional judge's robe at the Richard S. Arnold Courthouse but accompanied by a court reporter, Marshall and an entourage of courtroom staffers, school district officials, architects and attorneys for the different parties in the 35-year-old lawsuit toured the newly built Mills University Studies High and Joe T. Robinson Middle schools, as well as the 8-year-old Maumelle High.

All of the schools are in the Pulaski County Special School District.

The judge's all-day examination of the far-flung campuses was done at the invitation of Sam Jones, an attorney for the Pulaski County Special district. The tour comes at a time when the judge is being asked to consider whether any construction differences at the schools violate the district's desegregation plan, Plan 2000, and related court orders.

Marshall announced no decisions during the course of the school visits but expressed appreciation for the Pulaski County Special district's hospitality and for the encouragement he received from attorneys for the different parties that he view the schools for himself.

"It has been helpful to me to see all of this," Marshall said at the tour's end. "It's been a good day and I've seen a lot," he said, adding that he not only got a sense of the campuses but also an understanding about the significant distances between them. Marshall works in Little Rock but is from Jonesboro.

The 12,000-student Pulaski County Special district is obligated to equalize the condition of its school buildings, specifically making its old schools that serve neighborhoods with high percentages of black students -- such as Mills High in southeast Pulaski County -- comparable with the district's much newer schools -- such as Maumelle High -- that are in predominantly white communities.

To that end, the district in 2015 committed to the federal court to spend $55 million to build a new Mills High and to relocate Fuller Middle School to the former Mills High building -- all in southeast Pulaski County. At about the same time, the district began constructing a $45 million replacement for Robinson Middle School on Arkansas 10 in predominantly white west Pulaski County.

A year ago Pulaski County Special district officials notified the judge of some potential inequities between the Mills and Robinson construction projects. Since then attorneys for black students in the case, known as the Joshua intervenors, have argued that the Robinson Middle project -- including its athletic facilities -- are superior to the new Mills.

Thursday's tour of schools began at Maumelle High. The school has been generally held by the Joshua intervenors and others as the standard for new construction in the district.

The first stops at Maumelle High on Thursday included the 1,200-seat auditorium, a black box theater and space for scenery construction; a "seminar" classroom with stair-stepped rows of 185 seats; and a library/media center with a two-story-high ceiling, two walls of windows and a grant-funded, student-run coffee kiosk.

Maumelle High, which replaced the much smaller Oak Grove High, has about 1,100 students in grades nine through 12. It was built to hold 1,500 students but has common space -- cafeteria, auxiliary and competitive gymnasiums and media center -- that can accommodate up to 2,000.

At each school, Scott Young, the district's information technology project manager, and the school's principal guided the judge, the judge's desegregation expert and all the others through the library/media centers, standard classrooms, and specialty rooms for music, art, consumer science, career education and special education programs.

Also checked by the tour participants were cafeterias with their television screens/menu boards on the walls, the sizes of kitchens, the television studios, the auxiliary and competitive gymnasiums, the number and sizes of locker rooms for girls, boys and referees, the equipment in weight rooms, counselor offices, health rooms and the principals' offices.

"Pardon the question, but does your office include a private bathroom?" Marshall asked Robinson Principal Lance LeVar at one point. No, LeVar responded, but his office at the old Robinson Middle did.

The auditorium at Maumelle High is so large that the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra was able to use it when the Robinson Music Center was being remodeled. The school generates income of about $90,000 a year as a result of community groups using the auditorium on nights and weekends.

Maumelle High's large band room with its two-story-high ceiling was described by a school staff member as "palatial."

The new Mills High auditorium is far from finished, but Young said the facility has all the stage mechanics, lighting and sound equipment that Maumelle High has, just fewer seats for a school that has 650 students enrolled for the start of classes Monday and an ultimate capacity of 750.

Mills also has nearby band, orchestra and choir rooms that can serve as storm shelters.

Marshall asked about the student participation in those programs, which maxes out at about 60 in the orchestra program, Principal Duane Clayton said.

Robinson Middle has no auditorium but can use the adjoining Robinson High's 30-year-old auditorium for performances by its 200-member student choir.

Rep. John Walker D-Little Rock, and Austin Porter, attorneys for the Joshua intervenors, had multiple questions about the features at the different schools, including questions about storage space for band instruments, and about who was responsible for selecting carpeting and furniture, and making decisions about other features of the school.

Walker complained that the gray carpet with yellow swaths in the Mills' multipurpose meeting room made the room look unfinished.

That meeting room also lacked the stair-stepped seating that was in the Maumelle school. Mills' hallways had gray concrete flooring and student lockers in contrasting colors of gray. The flooring in the school's main two-story rotunda featured a sparkling design to highlight the Mills' Comet mascot.

The media center at Mills, like at Maumelle, was two stories high and featured one wall of windows to the outdoors and one wall of windows to the school hallways. It was smaller than that at Maumelle and was full Thursday of staff members in meetings and boxes waiting to be unpacked.

Robinson and Mills are both on property that the district has long owned. Robinson has three stories to accommodate the size of the site that included a hill that had to be partially removed.

Lockers at Robinson, like at Mills, also were contrasting shades of gray and some of the flooring was gray concrete while other areas featured a "ground cement" covering to give the look of a terrazzo tile. Portions of hallway walls also appeared to be tiled in shades of blue to highlight water fountains.

Robinson's front entrance featured a wide open space and wide architectural stairway to the second floor. To the right of the school's entrance is the cafeteria, with a kitchen significantly larger than that of Mills. The Robinson cafeteria features a stage, a mix of rectangle and round tables, and artistically distinctive lighting features. It has a capacity for 600.

The Robinson library with its colorful carpet and upholstered couches and chairs, and the two career education/robotics rooms all have large windows to the north that overlook the Robinson High football field.

The Robinson choir room features permanent risers and attractive acoustical wall coverings for its 200-member choir.

"That's impressive," Marshall told LeVar.

The band room included two walls of wire storage lockers for safekeeping of instruments.

Athletic facilities were a primary focus during Thursday's tour. Robinson and Mills have competitive gyms and auxiliary gyms. The Robinson Middle competitive gym -- to be shared with Robinson High school -- is more arena-like than the Mills' gym because the game floor is below the level of the chair-back and bench seating for 2,323 people.

Mills and Robinson schools both have multisports complexes that include artificially-turfed, indoor practice fields that are more common at college campuses.

Mills is to share its facility with the relocated Fuller Middle School. Robinson shares with Robinson High. Both complexes have team meeting rooms and weight rooms, but Robinson's is far larger and has more equipment than the Mills facility. The judge and others marched up the stairs at the Robinson facility to see a large, partially unfinished space that doubles the size of the complex.

Marshall walked through a light rain to see Maumelle High's field house with a weight room, team meeting room and coaches' offices. The school does not have a track or baseball field. It has no indoor turfed field. It does have competitive and auxiliary gyms.

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Principal Duane Clayton (left) answers a question Thursday as U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. (second from left), c... + Enlarge

A Section on 08/10/2018

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