Wednesday, March 25, 2015

EDITORIAL >> Cabot board sounds alarm

The Cabot School Board last week released an open letter criticizing proposed legislation that could hurt the district. The Leader ran an article Saturday under the headline, “Board warns on state cuts.” The school board is worried that more open-enrollment charter schools and more taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools will drain aid for public education.

“In our opinion, some of the proposed legislation does not serve the best interests of public education and, in particular, the Cabot School District,” warned the letter, which was signed by board president Donna Nash, vice president Brian Evans, secretary Ricky Hill and members Fred Campbell, Mark Russell, Dean Martin and Corey Williams.

They are worried that funding for public schools isn’t keeping up with rising expenses. The implication is that the Cabot School District will need a millage increase if the state keeps allocating funds away from public schools.

“For example, the Arkansas Bureau of Legislative Research predicts a 2 percent increase in the cost-of-living expense for a school district over the next two years. However, the recommendation by the legislature was for a 0.84 percent increase to funding for public school districts. So, essentially, the funding to cover the increased costs of fuel, utilities, instructional materials and maintenance will be less than actual costs. The increase being proposed does not cover the cost of mandatory step increases for the faculty and staff of the Cabot School District.”

But that’s not all: “While the funding for traditional public education is being only slightly increased,” the letter continued, “funding for charter schools and even private schools continues to be increased without addressing the accountability of these schools (SB703 and SB789).

“There is also legislation (HB1552 and HB 1593) being considered to provide funding to private schools for students who transfer from public to private schools. This bill would essentially create a ‘voucher’ system which can be found in other states. If this bill becomes law, funding would be deducted from public schools and provided to private and parochial schools with none of the accountability expected of your local public school system,” the board wrote in the letter.

There’s more: “Two bills, SB847 and HB1733, even allow for the state to force a local school district to lease ‘underutilized’ property to an open-enrollment charter school. Charter schools are not required to complete the facility needs assessment, nor are they required to submit a facility plan. Traditional schools must submit both. Public schools, including the Cabot School District, compete for facilities funds based on needs and plans. This legislation means that taxpayer funds would simply be ‘granted’ to charter schools based upon the number of students enrolled without any of the requirements placed on public schools.

The school board says one day the state could take over not just failing school districts but also successful districts like Cabot, which will see funds directed away from them and spent on troubled districts and new charter schools.

Under proposed legislation, “a district may be taken over by the Arkansas Department of Education when a single school is placed in academic distress. ADE or a contracted entity may operate the district for an unlimited length of time. Though this may not impact the Cabot School District at this time, it will only be a matter of time before a push is made to control even high-performing districts. This happens because there is money to be made...Not only do these entities take resources from public schools, they also have the potential to eliminate community control of the local district.

“Additionally, under HB 1733, there are no appeals procedures and the proposed legislation does not provide a provision for removal from the achievement district status. The school/district could be under the control of the commission forever. Provisions of fair dismissal, employee hearings, personnel policies and negotiated contracts may be waived by the commissioner of education.

The board also criticizes HB1422 and HB1743, “which would move school board elections from September to the same date as primaries and the general election. This division from the general elections in November allows voters to focus on school issues and separates school board elections from the overly political nature of general elections.

“These two bills would...highly politicize the school board positions. To date, school board elections have been spared from the usual negativity associated with general elections and the focus has been on what is best for the local community.”

Let’s hope legislators from the Cabot area and all around the state heed to warnings of the Cabot School Board before an outstanding school district falls victim to politics and ideology. The children in Cabot and everywhere deserve better. Thank you, Cabot School Board, for speaking out in their behalf.