LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - By allowing school districts to avoid being merged with their neighbors when they fall below the state’s minimum enrollment, the Arkansas Legislature signaled that the shadow of a long-running education funding case no longer looms large.
It also likely won’t be the last attempt to roll back key reforms enacted, such as the consolidation law, over the years to put an end to the Lake View school funding case.
The proposal allowing districts with fewer than 350 students to seek consolidation waivers won near-unanimous approval in the House and Senate, with no lawmakers voting against the change and Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson saying he’d sign it into law.
“This bill is long overdue,” Republican Sen. Alan Clark of Lonsdale told colleagues before they approved the measure.
It’s a major shift for the Legislature, where past efforts to revisit a consolidation law that rankled rural communities had been met with warnings that tinkering with the reforms enacted in response to Lake View could land the state back in court.
And it’s a cause for concern among the handful of lawmakers who were in the Legislature during the Lake View funding fight.
“I’m not unsympathetic to the people who are concerned about their schools being closed, but I’m very concerned that we’re going down a road here that’s going to get us into trouble,” said Democratic Sen. Joyce Elliott of Little Rock, who didn’t vote on the consolidation waiver proposal.
The Lake View school funding case ended in 2007 after the state Supreme Court ruled Arkansas had adequately funded its schools. The ruling came after years of heated legislative sessions that overhauled the state’s school funding system and raised taxes to pay for those reforms.
The 2004 consolidation law was the most bitterly fought in the Legislature, with lawmakers approving the 350 minimum after then-Gov. Mike Huckabee pushed for more widespread consolidation.
The impact of shuttering districts in rural parts of the state and the concern that it’s led to longer bus rides for many students has prompted unsuccessful attempts in the past to revisit the consolidation law. The most notable was in 2009, when the state Department of Education’s budget was briefly held up over a lawmaker’s attempt to change the way school enrollment was calculated when deciding whether a district should be consolidated.
Then-Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat who served as attorney general during the Lake View case, opposed the measure and warned that it would prompt lawsuits from districts that had been consolidated under the previous rules.
“If you change that, you’ve got all those lawyers back in the middle of Lake View again,” Beebe said at the time.
Rep. Bruce Cozart, the House Education Committee chairman who proposed the consolidation waiver bill, said he doesn’t believe the change will risk Arkansas landing back in court. Cozart’s measure would allow districts to seek the waivers if they’re not on the state’s academic, fiscal or facilities distress list.
Cozart, a Republican from Hot Springs, said he doesn’t see the waivers opening the door to scaling back other parts of the reforms enacted after Lake View. He cast the proposal as an effort to balance those reforms with concerns about students.
“I think Lake View is something everyone would like to forget, to put it mildly,” Cozart said. “I think everybody’s still concerned about Lake View and there are a lot of issues that could put us back in that situation, but I think everybody is looking at what can we do to educate our kids and keep our kids in our schools without these long bus trips.”
Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo
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