Lawmakers advance bills softening school district consolidation law
The Arkansas House of Representatives on Wednesday approved two bills that would allow some school districts to avoid forced consolidation.
Both bills seek to amend the nearly 20-year-old Public Education Reorganization Act, which requires the Arkansas Department of Education to publish an annual consolidation list of all districts with fewer than 350 students.
Senate Bill 262 would remove the requirement for ADE to produce the list and consolidate school districts whose daily average membership falls below 350 for two consecutive years. Sen. John Payton, R-Wilburn, said his bill preserves the right for districts to consolidate if they so choose.
Payton’s bill, which did not receive a single no vote as it worked its way through the Legislature, now heads to Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ desk.
The House on Wednesday also approved House Bill 1504, which provides more flexibility for struggling rural schools facing consolidation.
Under current law, districts that do not submit a plan for voluntary consolidation or have their petition approved by the State Board of Education shall be consolidated by the board by May 1, with consolidation effective July 1.
HB 1504 proposes exceptions for districts that are classified as in need of Level 5 — Intensive support and who have students that would have to ride a bus more than 40 miles to attend the new consolidated district.
If both conditions exist, HB 1504 says the state would assume authority of the school district, not close a public school and fire the district’s superintendent.
HB 1504 contains an emergency clause, so it would go into effect immediately, directly impacting the Marvell-Elaine School District in rural Phillips County. The district, which is scheduled for consolidation, is located in sponsor Rep. Mark McElroy’s district.
In an effort to “shoot straight” with House members Wednesday, McElroy said he filed the bill to try and save the district.
“All I’m asking you is give [them] a chance,” he said.
The LEARNS Act, a sweeping education bill signed into law by the governor this month, could help districts like Marvell-Elaine, McElroy said. For example, Delta schools have struggled with offering competitive teacher salaries, but that could change, he said, with a provision in the new law that raises the state’s minimum teacher salary from $36,000 to $50,000.
“I voted for the LEARNS program as many of you did, and if it is a cure-all for education, this would be the greatest place to be a test school in this Delta,” McElroy told a committee Tuesday.
Rural school district administrators have voiced concerns that losing students to school choice under the LEARNS Act would decrease their enrollment and force them to close.
Among other things, the LEARNS Act creates the Arkansas Children’s Educational Freedom Account Program. When fully implemented in three years, the program will allow state funding to be used for private and parochial school tuition or homeschool expenses.
Sixty-eight consolidations have occurred since the Public Education Reorganization Act was signed into law in 2004 by then-Gov. Mike Huckabee, according to ADE data; 46 occurred in 2004.
Marvell-Elaine is the only district facing consolidation this year, according to an ADE spokeswoman.
Fighting to stay open
The Marvell-Elaine School District formed in 2006 with the merger of two Phillips County districts. Marvell-Elaine learned it was once again facing consolidation last year due to low enrollment.
Marvell-Elaine has 306 students and 92% are African American, according to ADE.
Act 377 of 2015 allows districts to submit a waiver to avoid consolidation, but Marvell-Elaine’s request was denied by the Arkansas State Board of Education in December.
In a letter dated Feb. 28, the Marvell-Elaine superintendent and board president requested that the state board suspend finalizing a consolidation plan until after lawmakers considered Payton’s bill.
The state board’s general counsel responded that under current law, if the district didn’t file for voluntary administrative annexation or consolidation by March 1, the state board must consolidate the district by May 1, with the consolidation being effective July 1.
Members of the Marvell-Elaine community attended the state board’s meeting on Mar. 9 in Little Rock and pleaded with officials not to close their schools.
The board’s April 13 meeting will take place in Marvell and board members will listen to community members as well as Division of Elementary and Secondary Education officials who will recommend a plan for the district.
The Marvell-Elaine school board hosted a special meeting on Monday evening when the school board heard from Joe Harris, CEO of the Friendship Education Foundation. The charter management organization manages the Friendship Aspire Academy schools in Arkansas.
Harris said he was moved by Marvell-Elaine community members’ testimony at the state board meeting on Mar. 9, after which he was asked by “a number of people at high levels, starting in the governor’s office,” to reach out to the district.
“You all made a really big impact on not just the governor, but the commissioner and all the supporters of education,” Harris said. “And while y’all were talking, I probably got about four text messages saying, ‘Joe, talk to Marvell-Elaine.’ So we’re here in the spirit to introduce ourselves and talk about Friendship and asking how can we help in any way.”
Founded in 1997 in Washington D.C., Harris said the organization was invited to Arkansas by the Walton Family Foundation, and it now has eight campuses across the state.
School board members expressed interest during Monday’s meeting in continuing conversations about what a partnership between the district and Friendship could look like.
Once the school board formally adjourned its meeting, the superintendent said the board members could continue speaking with Friendship representatives.
The roughly two dozen community members watching via Zoom voiced displeasure when the camera to the board meeting was turned off, denying them access to the ongoing conversation.
The Marvell-Elaine School District announced via social media Tuesday that it will host a community meeting at 6 p.m. April 3, but no further details have been announced.