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Consolidation’s new wrinkle

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KauffmanBy Jacob Kaufman

Political Columnist

Another small town in Arkansas is about to shutter its schools, sit its children on 3 hour round-trip bus rides, and hope it doesn’t get hurt too bad. Hughes is a town of about 1,400 in the northeast part of the state. The St. Francis County hamlet has had the misfortune of its school district enrollment falling below the state’s 350-student minimum for two consecutive years. The state Board of Education was pretty much bound by law. Hughes needed to be consolidated.


I talked with a group of mothers who went to watch the state board close down their elementary and high school. Some of their daughters were in the last graduating class ever from the high school in Hughes. One parent said the effect of consolidation on the town will send it into an irreversible withering.
“Wherever school they go to, it’s where I’m going to have to move to. It’s going to go down. We ain’t got no school, what else? They might as well close the store, post office, and everything.”
Parents in Hughes will be sending their kids off to the West Memphis School District about 25 miles away. Naturally, everyone is a bit worried about what it will do to parental involvement, extra-curricular activities for students, and the town of Hughes.
Landmark court cases and legislative concoctions to provide equal educational opportunities to every student and reduce costs are behind decisions to consolidate smaller districts. The state government is obligated and should feel privileged to provide a certain standard of opportunities and education to every student. Arkansas has had and does have a famously high number of school districts.
It’s not meant to be malicious or to crush rural Arkansas. Proponents say it’s meant to give rural kids a chance to get quality education – class offerings, qualified instructors, peers – without being an unreasonable cost to the state.
The latest incarnation of the Legislature does have some sympathy to the effect of consolidation. The General Assembly is currently at a standstill, awaiting a formal and ceremonial adjournment, but before moving into recess the 90th General Assembly in bi-partisan fashion passed tossed small districts a life preserver.
Under ACT 377 a district which has had its population drop below the 350-student threshold for two years in a row could stave off the chopping block. The waiver under the new law lets schools on the consolidation list apply for a one-year delay – an exemption – if they are not in fiscal distress, academic distress, or facilities distress. This waiver can be re-applied for every year.
Hughes tried to claim it but didn’t stand much of a shot. The state board has deemed the district to be in fiscal distress for the past two years. Attorneys for Hughes quibbled about the definition of “fiscal distress.”
It’s hard for poor communities to fund schools. It’s harder for poor communities that are shrinking to fund schools. Consolidating those students, teachers, and resources into a more viable support-base for a school district is one solution that’s been pursued.
Another less popular option in an era of fiscal weariness toward social programs would be to dedicate more state funding to rural schools. Maybe do something to stem population decline rather than accelerate it. It’s often a hard call to make and keeping a school open doesn’t mean the attendance won’t continue to decline and a town won’t continue to shrink.
Some forces are simply bigger than the Hughes School District in shaping life in isolated parts of rural Arkansas. And kids around the state need to be able to read the same books and use the same computer software. We’ll see some day if kids in places like Hughes end with a better education after going to class out of town.

 

Jacob Kauffman has reported on the state legislature since 2013 and primarily covers Arkansas politics for KUAR Public Radio in Little Rock. His work has appeared on NPR, PBS News Hour, as well as a variety of state publications. He is also a regular panelist on AETN’s Arkansas Week and writes an exclusive weekly column for The Nashville News.