Tuesday, February 24, 2015

TOP STORY >> Senate voting on dividing district

Leader senior staff writer

As early as today, the Senate Education Committee could consider a bill to remove a key stumbling block facing Sherwood and Maumelle, two area cities wanting to secede from the Pulaski County Special School District.

HB 1242, which would lower the threshold for a new district from 4,000 students to 2,500, was passed in the House Monday by a vote of 60 to 21, with 18 not voting and one voting present.

Among local lawmakers, Rep. Karilyn Brown, (R-Sherwood), Rep. Joe Farrer (R-Austin) and Rep. Tim Lemons (R-Cabot) voted for the bill.

Voting against the bill was David Hillman, (D-Almyra) and not voting were Reps. Douglas House (R-Sherwood), Donnie Copeland (R-North Little Rock), Bob Johnson, (D-Jacksonville) and Jeremy Gillam (R-Judsonia).

A multitude of hurdles would still face both would-be districts, not the least of which is a court-approved desegregation agreement settlement which declares that only Jacksonville can detach from PCSSD until the district is declared unitary — desegregated — in all aspects.


But Jacksonville, which has been approved to stand up its own district by local voters, the courts and the state Board of Education have shown that it can be done with patience and perseverance.

The bill being amended, originally passed by former state Rep. Pat Bond, (D-Jacksonville) in about 2001, set the number at 4,000 — a number believed to be achievable for a Jacksonville district. That’s according to eeeeeerr5former state Rep. Will Bond (D-Jacksonville), her son.

Proponents of Maumelle and Sherwood school districts hope it will not take them 13 years between lowering the minimum size for detachment and approval, like it did for Jacksonville.

Each district will each have to conduct timely feasibility studies that show, among other things, that a new district could support itself, that it could achieve a racial balance and that it would not harm PCSSD by detaching, especially in terms of racial balance.


Johnson said he didn’t support the bill because he didn’t want to do anything that might jeopardize the new Jacksonville-North Pulaski School District. The desegregation settlement allowed only that detachment to happen before the Pulaski County Special School District is declared unitary.

House didn’t support the bill Monday. He said, “It stands a good chance of throwing out the desegregation agreement as it’s written.”

He explained how the agreement has a provision that reads the state shall oppose any detachment effort before PCSSD is unitary. Changing criteria in the law that deals with that is not opposing any detachment effort, House pointed out.

But, he said, he would support a Sherwood school district after PCSSD is released from federal court monitoring.


Brown said she was pleased with the vote and the strong support it represented.

The last time that it failed was by just two votes because 51 were needed. She was out sick and others missed the meeting because of the bad weather.

The bill lowers the enrollment required of any detaching district from 4,000 to 2,500, a more reasonable figure, Brown said. She explained that more than 50 percent of the state’s schools have 1,000 or fewer students while more than 75 percent have fewer than 2,000 enrolled.

Brown also said there was concern the bill would favor white affluent neighborhoods. But Sherwood’s feasibility study shows it isn’t mostly white or affluent.

The study concludes that Sherwood’s racial composition and percentage of students receiving free or reduced lunches matches PCSSD figures.

Brown said Sherwood, the 14th largest city in Arkansas, had just one member on the school board before PCSSD was taken over by the state.


“We feel that local control of our schools is important...I think the students will have more pride in their schools. I believe it will help attract business to the Sherwood area,” Brown noted.

Linda Remele, one of two former PCSSD administrators co-chairing the Sherwood Public Education Foundation Committee working toward detachment, agreed and added that the federal judge indicated he wasn’t against it. Before unitary status is achieved isn’t the right time, he told supporters, according to Remele.

She said the claim that the bill violates the desegregation agreement is “smoke and mirrors” and “holds no weight.”

Remele added that a second feasibility will be needed now that Jacksonville has detached.