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Arkansas Educators Worry Plan Spells Consolidation

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He has barely mentioned the "C" word, but consolidation is all Arkansas school administrators, teachers, and families are hearing from Gov. Jim Guy Tucker's drastic plan to equalize school funding across the state.

The Governor presented a draft bill to the legislature last week that would create regional school districts and make teacher salaries a state expense. (See Education Week, Jan. 25, 1995.)

Under the plan, the state's 312 districts would continue to govern local schools, but the state would establish 34 regional boards to oversee them. The boards, established to equalize local property-tax bases statewide, could ultimately close junior and senior high schools in towns that failed to levy a state-defined tax rate.

The boards would not have authority to close elementary schools. But officials in many rural areas fear that could be the result--a development they say would spell the end of their towns.

In rural areas, "the hub of your whole community is your school district," said Mickey McFatridge, the executive secretary of the Arkansas Rural Education Association. But protecting elementary schools alone does not insure the preservation of towns, he said.

"After a few years, even your elementary school is gone," he said, "and you just lose your whole sense of community."

A New Beginning

Governor Tucker's solution is an attempt to be "both fair to the kids and fair to the taxpayers," according to Max Parker, the Governor's press secretary.

Last November, a Pulaski County judge ruled the state's school-funding program unconstitutional and gave the legislature two years to correct it.

The draft submitted to the legislature last week calls for the creation of the regional districts, which would be drawn to include approximately the same amount of property wealth and would oversee local property taxes in local "community" districts.

The new tax system would help raise the minimum teachers' salary from $16,000 to $22,000. Mr. Tucker's draft stipulates that each region would maintain an average salary of $30,000.

Causing Protests

The Governor's plan places decisions in taxpayers' hands, Ms. Parker said, and would be a solution that everyone in the state could understand.

But early in the week, school officials were unsure of the details in the Governor's proposal and were fairly certain the legislation would usurp local control, threatening the states' rural schools.

"We could be voted out without having much of a say," said Mr. McFatridge, who works as the superintendent of the 500-student Pearl school district.

Penny Ferguson, the superintendent of the 400-student Ouachita district in Hot Spring County, acknowledged the need to develop a more equitable program.

"That is not an easy road," she said. "But I think this 34-district consolidation plan is a little drastic."

On a field trip to Little Rock late last month, 60 high school students from Ms. Ferguson's district staged a protest at the Capitol.

And 400 Ouachita residents--more than half the community--attended a public meeting on the issue. Town leaders also organized a letter-writing campaign to voice their concerns to the Governor and lawmakers.

Taking the offensive, Ms. Ferguson and other local officials argued that school closings in rural areas could also be a transportation headache.

"You could have kids getting up at 5 or 6 in the morning and getting to school late," Mr. McFatridge said.

Still unaccounted for in the school-reform discussion are the state's lawmakers.

Tony Minicozzi, the staff contact for the Senate and House education committees, said the Governor's initiative has "a fair shot" at passing in the legislature.

"If you'd asked me a while ago, I'd say it wouldn't have a prayer," Mr. Minicozzi said. But a 1993 law that instituted term limits means that many Arkansas lawmakers are on their way out, he said, and can afford to be bold.

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