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BLYTHEVILLE -- Business organizations -- including the Greater Blytheville Area Chamber of Commerce -- urged parents during a meeting Monday to challenge the Blytheville School District's decision not to participate in a state law that allows students to transfer to schools outside their districts.

The district announced on April 22 it would not participate in the School Choice Act of 2013, saying it was exempt from the act because of desegregation obligations.

Gary Newton, the president of Arkansas Learns -- a nonprofit organization in Little Rock focused on education changes -- asked parents and business leaders to "step up" and request the northeast Arkansas district allow students the choice to attend other schools.

About 50 people, many of them parents or grandparents of students, along with business leaders, attended Monday's meeting held at the Arkansas Northeastern College in south Blytheville. Blytheville School District Superintendent Richard Atwill was not at the meeting.

He did not return telephone messages earlier in the day.

"Change can come," Newton, a former executive vice president of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, said. "But you have to be willing to stand up for it."

Liz Smith, the director of the Greater Blytheville Area Chamber of Commerce, said she feared the school district's refusal to participate in the act will mean residents will move away from the Mississippi County town of 15,120.

"Our concern is the growth of our community," she said. "If people have [school] choice, they can still live in Blytheville. We've already seen a lot of people move out."

State legislators enacted the School Choice Act of 2013 to allow students to transfer to schools outside the districts in which they live, with some limitations. Schools are not required to hire additional teachers, staff or classrooms under the act, and they can deny transfer requests if the district does not have the capacity to accommodate extra students.

The law permits a district to annually declare an exemption to the act if it is subject to a desegregation order or mandate of a federal court order to remedy effects of past racial segregation.

Eighteen districts are listed by the Arkansas Department of Education as having claimed an exemption to the act because of conflicts with desegregation court orders. Arkansas has 232 school districts.

Blytheville is one of the 18 school districts, and some of its schools are struggling academically, with two classified by the state as academically distressed.

A school qualifies for the distress qualification if fewer than 49.5 percent of its students score at proficient or advanced levels on standardized math and literacy tests for the most recent three-year period.

In August 2014, a panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis dismissed a lawsuit filed by families who wanted to transfer their children out of the Blytheville School District for the 2013-14 school year. The school district received an exemption from the school choice program because it was subject to a federal school desegregation order.

The families contended that the school district violated their constitutional rights by opting out of the school transfer program and denying their requests.

The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the lawsuit, calling it "moot" and said the school year was over and "nowhere in their motions do the appellants ask the court to enjoin the district from passing further resolutions opting out of the 2013 Act."

Newton asked parents and others to attend state Board of Education meetings next month about appeals of the district's decision to opt out.

"That will have a real and lasting impact on board members," he said.

He also told parents who have been denied transfer requests to immediately file appeals. They have until July 30 to do so, he said.

Brett Harris and his wife, Stacey Harris, of Blytheville sent their two daughters to neighboring Armorel School District when Stacey Harris worked at the district. She quit her job there earlier this year, and the Blytheville School District refused their request to keep their two children, an eighth-grader and 10th-grader, in that district.

"We took them out [of Blytheville] because of the academics," Brett Harris said.

The two home-schooled their daughters for three years prior to enrolling them at Armorel.

"We considered moving out of Blytheville and to Armorel, but we couldn't sell our home," Stacey Harris said.

Smith said business leaders fear more may more want out of the town because of educational opportunities elsewhere.

"If something doesn't happen, if there are no educational options, this could be detrimental to us," Smith said.

State Desk on 07/21/2015

Print Headline: Chamber says fight for choice/Blytheville issue: Student transfers

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