Price tags for desegregation settlement

 LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — There are three price tags connected to the decades-long fight over attempts to desegregate three central Arkansas school districts. Two feature actual dollars and cents; the other is the cost of good public relations.

Lawyers for the state of Arkansas, three school systems and groups of school patrons went to federal court last week seeking an end to a 31-year-old lawsuit over a racial imbalance in the public schools of Pulaski County.

U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. has said he’s inclined to approve the settlement after ensuring that it doesn’t unfairly benefit or harm one party or another. If his approval ultimately happens, figuring out the dollars and cents is easy:

—Arkansas will spend about $70 million in each of the next four years in the Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County Special school districts, with the first three years of payments furthering desegregation efforts — just like the state has done with a previous $1 billion since 1989. A fourth year of payments would be dedicated to improving academic facilities, not any for athletics or the administration.

—Taxpayers statewide will eventually see the grocery tax fall to one-eighth-cent, completing the virtual elimination of the tax since Gov. Mike Beebe took office in 2007 on a pledge to do away with it. The one-eighth-cent tax to remain is dedicated to wildlife programs — the result of Arkansas voters approving the tax under Gov. Mike Huckabee’s tenure.
Before Beebe took office, Arkansas taxed grocery sales like most other items at retail — 6 cents on the dollar. Advocates for the poor criticized the tax, calling it exceptionally regressive because low-income people must pay a larger percentage of their income on food.

Within a year, legislators and Beebe had cut the grocery tax to 3 cents, saving a typical family of four $234 a year and costing the state about $252 million in revenue over a two-year period.

The grocery tax is now down to 1.5 percent, but eliminating it altogether is dependent upon how the Little Rock desegregation case goes. The would-be tax cut is estimated to cost the state about $69 million annually, but won’t kick in unless the state reduces, by $35 million for a six-month period, its obligations in key areas that include the desegregation payments.

But eating more cheaply won’t benefit the state if the public relations damage caused by the desegregation battle of 1957 remains the world’s central memory of the state. Arkansas has to ensure that it demonstrates that it’s committed to desegregation — just like its pledge in the Lake View case to make sure schools are funded adequately and fairly — and do it without just writing a check.

And if it does it when judges aren’t watching, you can’t put a price tag on that.