A bill to change some of the requirements for creating a new school district by separating from an existing district failed Tuesday in the House Committee on Education.
Rep. Mark Lowery, R-Maumelle, sponsored House Bill 1242, which would have decreased the number of students required at the new district from 4,000 to 2,500.
Lowery said he sought this change is because this is the number Maumelle could reach.
During the presentation of his bill, Lowery said both Sherwood and Maumelle are currently studying leaving the Pulaski County Special School District.
Rep. John W. Walker, D-Little Rock, asked several questions about the bill and expressed concern that these two towns exiting would skew the district population toward southeast Pulaski County, an area that is "disproportionately African American and poor."
"That area is not the totality of PCSSD," Lowery responded. "Your question is moot because you still have western Pulaski County, and it is a thriving tax base and also has a large base of white students."
Walker repeatedly asked if the bill was racially motivated and said that equal schools have never been provided in the southeastern part of the county.
"You're obliged to provide equal schools for those black students to equalize facilities to address history not yet remediated," Walker said to Education Commissioner Tony Wood.
Lowery said there are several hurdles for the districts to overcome in order to separate, one of them being that the Special district must achieve unitary status and be released from federal court supervision in a desegregation lawsuit. Because of that requirement, Lowery said, Sherwood and Maumelle would have a great incentive to support a millage increase in September, which would fund new a new high school in southeast Pulaski County, among other projects.
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette previously reported that inequitable facilities is one of the areas keeping the Special district from achieving unitary status.
Walker said he didn't understand how the state justified spending money to build Maumelle High School to accommodate 1,600 students when at the time the student population totaled 450.
"[Maumelle] became a growth district and thus a flight district," Walker said. "It's like a field of dreams: You build it, and they will come.
"You say come over here and we have these facilities, but in the southeast quadrant, you don't have these facilities. Some have an empty building not even half full and other facilities are going lacking, and this is under the state department's leadership. How do you justify that?"
Neither Wood nor Lowery responded to Walker's question.
Gloria Majors with the Arkansas Public Policy Panel spoke against the bill and said she echoed Walker's position.
"I graduated form an integrated school where we got hand-me-down curriculum and substandard in other things like band instruments," Majors said. "From what this bill looks like to me, it looks like it's headed towards another segregation."
Lowery acknowledged that Walker raised valid questions and concerns, but said those would be addressed if Sherwood and Maumelle ever got to that point in the lengthy process of attempting to separate from the Pulaski County district.
The bill failed in a voice vote in the committee, and Lowery told committee chairman Rep. Bruce Cozart that several representatives didn't realize the bill was being voted on and asked for a revote.
Walker said there was "no justification for revisiting the issue."
Cozart said Lowery will present the bill again at the committee meeting Thursday.