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Published in Print: July 14, 2004, as Legal Battles Continue as Arkansas Districts Merge

Legal Battles Continue as Arkansas Districts Merge

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Arkansas’ decade-long court battle over school finances may finally be over, but the larger legal and political dogfight over money for rural schools and the consolidation of rural school districts is just beginning to get fierce.

Supporters of small rural districts have filed lawsuits in recent weeks challenging a new state law that forces dozens of the state’s smallest districts to merge with neighbors.

The legislature passed a law in January that forced the district mergers as part of the state’s strategy to meet an Arkansas Supreme Court decision from 2002 that required improvements in poor rural schools. ("Court Orders Arkansas to Fix K-12 Funding," Dec. 4, 2002.)

In the latest series of legal twists, 27 schools or school-based organizations, along with 48 citizens, filed a federal lawsuit June 3 contending that the consolidation law is unconstitutional and discriminatory toward taxpayers and students in impoverished rural areas.

Then, the 1,600-student Dumas district filed a suit June 25 in Desha County specifically challenging the state board of education’s decision to force Dumas to merge with the 215-student Gould district against the wishes of both districts. That request was denied on June 30.

And on June 18, a divided Arkansas Supreme Court relinquished its oversight of the 2002 order in Lake View School District v. Mike Huckabee. In that case, filed by the tiny Lake View school district against the state’s Republican governor, the court ordered the legislature to improve poor rural schools across the state.

Limited Power

The recent state supreme court ruling disappointed rural school advocates, who had wanted the court to continue its oversight and allow arguments seeking more improvements.

Some school leaders also contend that the district mergers will not enhance education for rural students, are causing administrative problems for districts, and ultimately will force the closing of many small schools.

But Justice Robert L. Brown wrote in last month’s main opinion that the state high court did not have the power to require further school reforms. He praised lawmakers for their early approval of $400 million in additional K-12 spending for the new fiscal year, including higher teacher pay and improved regional institutes to help rural schools.

While the court took no position on consolidation, Justice Brown wrote that further steps toward efficiency in schools "will be inevitable."

Gov. Mike Huckabee said the decision pointed the state toward more consolidations, which he argues will save money and offer students more academic courses.

"The court today in a deeply divided decision reflects a very deeply divided state over the issue of how to best reform education," he told reporters June 18.

Rural school groups have vowed to fight the governor, just as they did earlier this year to avoid Mr. Huckabee’s far-reaching consolidation proposal that would have affected all districts with fewer than 1,500 students. The current law requires mergers in district of fewer than 350 students.

Rural Reaction

Across rural Arkansas, school administrators were required to have the mergers in place by July 1. The changes left some superintendents without their old jobs, and had some rural leaders fearing their community schools would be closed after the coming school year.

Jimmy Cunningham, who until July 1 was the superintendent of the Plainview-Rover schools in west- central Arkansas, said his district joined the federal lawsuit because it’s being forced to take over the debt, buildings, and policies of other school districts.

"Our biggest concern is the co-mingling of tax dollars," said Mr. Cunningham, whose district passed a local levy last year to renovate and enlarge its school. The 311-student Plainview-Rover district merged with two neighboring districts on July 1. Mr. Cunningham was scheduled to become an assistant superintendent in the new 1,100-student district.

In its suit, the Dumas district challenged the state school board’s decision to force a merger between Dumas and the neighboring Gould district. The suit argued that the mostly African-American district in Gould should be able to merge with the district of its choice, not Dumas.

In his decision, Circuit Judge Jerry Mazzanti denied the request to block the merger, saying he didn’t have jurisdiction in the case.

Brooks Gill, the lawyer for the Dumas schools, argued that bringing Gould students into Dumas could prompt many of the remaining white students to leave the majority-black Dumas schools and thereby reduce school integration there.

"I don’t have a magic bullet. I just know what the state did in this case will destroy the Dumas school district, or at least has the potential to do that," Mr. Gill said. "That doesn’t solve the problem we’re trying to fix."

Vol. 23, Issue 42, Pages 25,28

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