The state Board of Education has voted to consolidate the Stephens School District in south Arkansas with three nearby districts, a move spurred by a declining student population in Stephens.
The district in Stephens in Ouachita County for two years had its enrollment dip below 350 students, which invokes an Arkansas law that requires consolidation. Stephens was unable to reach a voluntary petition for a consolidation plan, so it fell to the state board to implement an involuntary consolidation.
Stephens asked at the board meeting Thursday that it be consolidated entirely with the Nevada School District because that scenario would allow a school to remain open in the Ouachita County town. But an attorney representing Magnolia, Nevada and Camden Fairview districts called that an assumption and requested that the Stephens students be split along county lines into those three districts.
"We think our plan makes more sense," attorney for the three districts Whitney Moore said. "It's the best possible solution for everyone involved."
The Department of Education recommended the tri-county split and the board ultimately agreed, voting 5-2 for that plan.
Clay Fendley, an attorney for the Stephens district, said parents there were "overwhelmingly" in favor of joining only Nevada in order to keep a school open in the town.
"We believe the best interest of our students is served by a quality school in their community," he said. "The best interest of the children is our focus."
Patsy Hughey, superintendent of the Stephens district, said splitting up the students would be treating them like livestock.
"Please do not divide them three different ways," she said. "Relationships are so important. Social activities are so important. Keep them together. Please, ma'am. Please, sir."
The board's decision must be approved by the federal court because the Stephens district is under a desegregation order.
The consolidation is set to go into effect July 1.