Stephens school split-up OK’d

State board votes to merge tiny district with 3 oth­ers

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - AZ­IZA MUSA AND CYN­THIA HOW­ELL

The Arkansas Board of Ed­u­ca­tion voted Thurs­day to split the tiny Stephens School District among three neigh­bor­ing school districts over the ob­jec­tions of the Stephens district’s lead­ers, who sought a merger with only one district.

The in­vol­un­tary merger com­bines sec­tions of the Stephens district with the Cam­den-Fairview, Mag­no­lia and Ne­vada school districts. The split, which will take place along county lines, was trig­gered when the Stephens district’s en­roll­ment fell be­low the legally re­quired min­i­mum of 350 in two con­sec­u­tive years.

“This is never an easy mat­ter to con­sider,” said the depart­ment’s gen­eral coun­sel, Jeremy La­siter. “The ques­tion is not whether a con­sol­i­da­tion will take place but how a con­sol­i­da­tion will take place.”

The merger passed in a 5-3 vote. Board mem­bers Alice Ma­hony and Toyce New­ton voted against the mea­sure,

and mem­ber Joe Black was ab­sent.

The de­ci­sion re­quires ap­proval by a federal judge to be­come fi­nal be­cause of a pre-ex­ist­ing school de­seg­re­ga­tion or­der.

The Ed­u­ca­tion Board took the ac­tion on Stephens at a lengthy meet­ing Thurs­day in which it also ap­proved the clo­sure of Cot­ton Plant El­e­men­tary School in the Au­gusta School District.

Un­der the ap­proved merger, the Stephens district will dis­solve July 1, ter­mi­nat­ing all em­ploy­ees’ con­tracts with it. Cur­rent school board mem­bers in each of the three districts will serve in in­terim po­si­tions un­til re­zon­ing is com­pleted, and each of the three districts will have its own su­per­in­ten­dent.

All of Stephens’ as­sets and li­a­bil­i­ties will fall to the three districts fol­low­ing county lines, and the dis­solv­ing district’s per­sonal property will be split among the three upon fur­ther agree­ment, ac­cord­ing to the merger plan.

The data to sup­port the tri-county merger is there, Ed­u­ca­tion Com­mis­sioner Tom Kim­brell said. Stephens stu­dents would go to bet­ter-per­form­ing schools, he said, while ac­knowl­edg­ing that all four districts are cur­rently un­der “needs im­prove­ment” sta­tus.

Ear­lier this year, Stephens at­tempted to garner a vol­un­tary part­ner in the Ne­vada district, which the ma­jor­ity of par­ents fa­vored in a sur­vey, Stephens’ at­tor­ney Clay Fend­ley said. The par­ties came close to reach­ing an agree­ment, but it even­tu­ally fell through, he said.

None of the sur­round­ing school districts was in­ter­ested in tak­ing on Stephens, said at­tor­ney Whit­ney Moore, who rep­re­sented the Cam­den-Fairview, Mag­no­lia and Ne­vada districts. Of­fi­cials didn’t see how it was fea­si­ble to con­tinue to keep the Stephens schools open, she said.

“The gen­eral rep­u­ta­tion of Stephens’ com­po­nents is poor,” Moore said, adding that the build­ings are “very old” and that while buses and other as­sets are in bet­ter shape, the other districts didn’t need those.

Af­ter map­ping out where cur­rent Stephens stu­dents live, she said, it was “fairly ob­vi­ous” to see that of­fi­cials should send stu­dents who live in Oua­chita County to Cam­den-Fairview schools, those in Columbia County to Mag­no­lia schools and those in Ne­vada County to its schools.

The for­mer McNeil School District merged with Stephens in 2004 be­cause of low en­roll­ment. Un­der that con­sol­i­da­tion, Stephens fell un­der McNeil’s federal de­seg­re­ga­tion or­der.

Many McNeil res­i­dents op­posed a merger only be­tween Ne­vada and Stephens, ar­gu­ing that the tri-county pro­posal was much eas­ier to swal­low. McNeil is some 6 miles away from Mag­no­lia, a shorter dis­tance than to Stephens.

McNeil Mayor Henry War­ren urged the board to “look at all the fig­ures” be­fore mak­ing a de­ci­sion.

“I don’t want our kids to be shipped to school af­ter school down the road,” he said. “I want the de­ci­sion to be per­ma­nent.”

Stephens Su­per­in­ten­dent Patsy Hughey pleaded with the board to choose the Ne­vada-Stephens con­sol­i­da­tion.

“I am def­i­nitely op­posed to the split, be­cause to me, it’s like you’re tak­ing our stu­dents and us­ing them like live­stock and di­vid­ing them these dif­fer­ent ways,” she said. “If the schools must close, then please let the stu­dents be to­gether.”

Stephens is the lat­est district of dozens that have folded into oth­ers be­cause of low en­roll­ment. Un­der Act 60, which passed in 2004, school districts in which en­roll­ment falls be­low 350 for two years in a row have to be con­sol­i­dated with one or more districts. Districts can find a part­ner district, but if that fails, it’s up to the state Ed­u­ca­tion Board to choose the host­ing district.

Small com­mu­ni­ties gen­er­ally don’t fa­vor the act. Clo­sures of­ten lead to los­ing schools in small com­mu­ni­ties, which raises ar­gu­ments that it hurts the towns’ iden­ti­ties.

“Be­ing from south Arkansas and see­ing com­mu­ni­ties dec­i­mated … some­times it’s an oxy­moron to do the right thing for the com­mu­nity and at the same time for the school and at the same time for the stu­dents,” board mem­ber New­ton said. “Keep at the fore­front the hu­man el­e­ment. Re­sources don’t al­ways equate to what’s best for a com­mu­nity.”

En­roll­ment in Stephens schools for the 2010-11 school year was 355 and low­ered to 333 in 2011-12. Last year, en­roll­ment av­er­aged 344, and there are cur­rently 314 stu­dents in the district.

Cur­rently, Cam­den-Fairview has 2,437 stu­dents, Ne­vada has 362 and Mag­no­lia has 2,746.

The in­terim school boards will not have a rep­re­sen­ta­tive from Stephens, and Fend­ley said the districts will likely vote to close the Stephens cam­puses. That elic­its a le­gal ques­tion, he said, ar­gu­ing that the de­ci­sion to close the schools with­out Stephens’ rep­re­sen­ta­tion is “tak­ing away [their] right to vote.”

Other Arkansas com­mu­ni­ties are con­tin­u­ing to see the ef­fects of Act 60 law, as well.

The Ed­u­ca­tion Board on Thurs­day ap­proved the clo­sure of the pre-kinder­garten-through-third-grade Cot­ton Plant El­e­men­tary School in the 435-stu­dent Au­gusta district. Au­gusta and the for­mer Cot­ton Plant School District merged in 2004 as a re­sult of Act 60.

The state board’s vote be­came nec­es­sary af­ter a di­vided Au­gusta School Board vote to close what is con­sid­ered an iso­lated cam­pus in its con­sol­i­dated district.

Arkansas Code An­no­tated 6-20-602 re­quires any school board vote on clos­ing a school in a for­mer district to be unan­i­mous. A pos­i­tive but di­vided vote on clos­ing a school must go to the state Ed­u­ca­tion Board for a fi­nal de­ci­sion.

The state board can ap­prove the clos­ing of a school if it is in the best in­ter­est of stu­dents and will not vi­o­late any court or­ders or have any neg­a­tive im­pact on de­seg­re­ga­tion ef­forts.

Cot­ton Plant El­e­men­tary School en­rolls 46 chil­dren, cre­at­ing class sizes of six to 11 pupils per teacher, smaller than the class sizes in the Au­gusta district.

The cost of op­er­at­ing the school is $483,798 in salaries and util­i­ties, Au­gusta Su­per­in­ten­dent Ray Nassar said.

The sav­ings gen­er­ated by clos­ing the cam­pus would be rein­vested into build­ing up­grades, a new bus and tech­nol­ogy for the re­main­ing Au­gusta cam­puses. The clo­sure of the Cot­ton Plant school also would pro­tect the Au­gusta district from be­ing placed in the state’s fis­cal-dis­tress pro­gram, Nassar said.

It is an­tic­i­pated that most, if not all, Cot­ton Plant staff would be able to fill va­can­cies at the Au­gusta cam­puses, the su­per­in­ten­dent said.

Cot­ton Plant City Coun­cil mem­ber Jessie Jones ob­jected to the clo­sure, say­ing that the Cot­ton Plant chil­dren are among the high­est-achiev­ing in the re­gion and that the chil­dren at the school are too small to ride a bus 28 to 33 miles one-way to Au­gusta.

Eirvin Lewis wrote to the state board in op­po­si­tion to clos­ing the school, say­ing that the com­mu­nity is hop­ing to at­tract a tire fac­tory and fish re­fin­ery and the lack of a school would be a de­ter­rent to new fam­i­lies seek­ing work there. Lewis also pre­dicted that the dis­placed Cot­ton Plant chil­dren would more likely choose to at­tend the closer Brink­ley School District.

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