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Published in Print: April 21, 2004, as Arkansas School Merger Plans Take Shape

Arkansas School Merger Plans Take Shape

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Lavina Grandon and other rural educators don’t see how forcing Arkansas’ 57 smallest school districts to consolidate will help improve the education of local children.

"It won’t make kids read or write better, or do mathematics better," said Ms. Grandon, the founder of a group called Save Our Schools and a high school English teacher in Valley Springs, 40 miles south of the Missouri line. "It won’t save money as they claim it will, … and at the same time people will lose representation on their school boards."

The districts, though, have little say in the matter.

State legislators passed a plan that became law in January that requires all school districts with fewer than 350 students to merge with neighboring school systems. The move was part of the legislature’s attempt to meet a state supreme court order for leaders to provide better schooling for students in poor and rural areas. ("As Arkansas Legislature Stalls, Court Takes Action," Feb. 4, 2004.)

The plan to merge districts with enrollments below 350 struck a compromise: Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican, at first proposed the consolidation of all districts with fewer than 1,500 students. Advocates for rural schools wanted no mergers at all.

The 57 merging districts had until April 1 to submit their consolidation plans to the state board of education. As of the deadline, all but seven had found districts to join. Those seven districts had been rejected by their neighbors or were working out details for final plans, said Scott Smith, the general counsel for the Arkansas Department of Education.

The state school board must approve the merger plans by June 1, and the mergers must be in place by on July 1, Mr. Smith said. Districts that have not found partners or have been rejected by their neighbors will be assigned partners by the state board.

Merging districts must be situated in the same counties or share borders, Mr. Smith said.

Deadlines Approach

Combining districts is a huge distraction from the daily work of running a school, said Jimmy Cunningham, the superintendent of the 311- student Plainview-Rover school district, which is planning a three-way merger with schools in Fourche Valley and Ola.

Mr. Cunningham said a provisional school board would be in place soon to govern the combined 1,100-student district, which will span 600 square miles across the Ouachita Mountains in west-central Arkansas. He and other officials are busy writing new district policies, setting teacher salaries, and ironing out other details. It’s not yet clear who will be the superintendent of the new district.

"That’s quite time-consuming," Mr. Cunningham said. "I know it’s not going to be a savings of money."

Mr. Cunningham, who serves as the president of the Arkansas Rural Education Association, said his group is considering a federal lawsuit to block the mergers. He argues that all the changes won’t help many rural schools improve, and that more than $400 million in new state funding designed to meet the court order will be spent mostly on higher teacher salaries.

"Which is fine," he said, "but it leaves no money left for programs."

The original merger plan pushed by Gov. Huckabee would have affected far more of Arkansas’ 300-plus districts.

While the new state law bars school closings during the first year of any district merger, Mr. Cunningham said local school officials in his consolidated district agree already that each community needs to keep its schools open because of the long distances between them.

"My school and kids will remain the same. They won’t be moved, and that’s a victory in itself," said Mr. Cunningham.

Elsewhere, Carthage district Superintendent Kathleen M. Cole said a merger could help her 110 students in grades K-12 get a better education, but she can’t find a partner and won’t merge with a school system that’s struggling academically as much as hers.

"We have talked with the surrounding schools, but they have refused us. A lot of it has to do with the distance," said Ms. Cole, whose lone school is 23 miles from the nearest school.

Now, her students’ fate may be up to the state board.

"No one wants to lose a school, especially in a small community, but the blow would be a little easier on them if they went where they particularly wanted to go," Ms. Cole said. "It’s really not an option for us to be left alone."

New Battles Ahead?

Rep. Will Bond of Jacksonville, a Democrat from outside Little Rock who was the merger plan’s lead sponsor, acknowledges that the plan won’t solve all of Arkansas’ education problems—and maybe won’t even please the supreme court.

However, a report this month from the court-appointed special masters in charge of monitoring Arkansas’ academic and school finance reforms indicates the state may be on the right track, Mr. Bond said.

"It’s a political quandary," the legislator added. "You’re asking rural legislators to pass the largest tax increase in Arkansas history—and to close their school districts."

Earlier this year, the legislature approved the merger law in addition to $370 million in tax increases to help fund school improvements called for by the court.

To find middle ground, Mr. Bond and other lawmakers looked at data that convinced them that the 350-student cutoff made sense because costs seemed to creep up and test scores seemed to fall in many districts that fell below that enrollment level, he said.

Looking ahead, Mr. Bond said that state leaders would need to address teacher salaries, which were raised to a minimum of $27,500 but may still be significantly higher in wealthy districts that can afford to pay more. He suggested allowing teachers to select a pay-for- performance system based on their students’ achievement.

"If you really want to improve education in certain areas, you’re going to have to get your best teachers to your worst students," he said.

Ms. Grandon, the teacher in the 950-student Valley Springs district, said consolidation is just one big distraction. And she fears the issue isn’t going away.

Gov. Huckabee and some state lawmakers have made it clear they want more districts to combine forces, which means more legislative battles could be ahead over school sizes in Arkansas.

"There can be some positive aspects that will result, but none that would require consolidation for them to happen," Ms. Grandon said. "They didn’t have to take away local representation and local identities in order for that to happen."

Mr. Cunningham, the superintendent of the Plainview- Rover district, agreed that Arkansas’ smallest districts may soon be fewer in number, but said that many had just begun to fight.

"People think they’re safe because they’re over 350, but they better get ready—because they’re next," he said.

Vol. 23, Issue 32, Pages 19,22

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