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The Jacksonville/North Pulaski School District will claim an exemption for the 2018-19 school year from a state law that allows students — with some exceptions — to attend a public school in a district other than the one in which they live.

The School Board for the Pulaski County Special School District, which claimed the exemption to the state’s School Choice Act for this year and in the past, will decide at its meeting Tuesday whether to forgo the claim for 2018-19 as it initially planned.

The two districts are among 15 that have exemptions to the student-transfer law this year for reasons related to their federal school desegregation cases. The districts must notify the state by Jan. 1 of their intentions for the 2018-19 school year under what has become a stricter state law on exemptions.

Allen Roberts of Camden, an attorney for several of the districts that have exemptions, said he expects most of the districts to reassert their claims to the state to avoid student transfers that could put them in conflict with federal court desegregation orders or federal court-approved desegregation plans.

Roberts also said he expects the districts that submit those claims to get some push-back.

“It wouldn’t surprise us if the state Board of Education or the Arkansas Department of Education denied all of our applications,” Roberts said. “Then,” he said, “we would get the answer authoritatively,” a reference to what he expects would be resulting lawsuits and court decisions.

Act 1066 of this year sets the Jan. 1 date for claiming a conflict between the state law with an enforceable desegregation court order or desegregation plan.

The act calls for districts to submit proof showing that an active desegregation order or desegregation plan “explicitly limits the transfer of students between school districts.”

“Within 30 calendar days of receipt of proof, the department shall notify the school district whether it is required to participate in the school choice provisions of this sub-chapter,” the new language in the law states.

“The department may reject incomplete submissions,” it also says. “If the department does not provide a written exemption to the school district, then the school district shall be required to participate in the school choice provisions.”

The state Board of Education may review an Education Department decision on a school-choice law exemption — if petitioned to do so by a school district. The state board can affirm or reverse the decision of the department, the law says.

The School Board for the Pulaski County Special district voted in March to claim an exemption for the current school year but allow students to transfer in or out of the district in the 2018-19 period.

“We have to vote again on it. The vote before isn’t good enough,” School Board President Linda Remele said last week. “It is on the agenda [for Tuesday] and what I’ve asked the superintendent to do is explain that we could lose up to 360 students a year and that 360 students translates to the loss of $2.3 million to $2.4 million a year in state aid.”

The school-choice law caps permissible transfers to no more than 3 percent of the enrollment in a district, which would be about 360 students in the 12,000-student Pulaski County Special system. The law also allows a district to deny a student transfer if the desired school system does not have sufficient space for a transfer.

The Pulaski County district doesn’t have to lose students and it could attract new students from other districts, Remele said. That would mean new funds to the school system.

“We want to be so good that everybody wants to come to us,” she said and referred to enticements such as newly constructed buildings and the school of innovation plan for the high schools.

Remele said she would be surprised if the board reverses its earlier vote to allow student transfers, but she wants the board to make any decision with a full understanding of the possible consequences.

“I feel like I will vote to go for school choice,” Remele said. “I want to listen to the discussion but I’m leaning toward school choice. I believe in the free market.”

Scott Richardson, an attorney for the Jacksonville/North Pulaski district, said last week that the Jacksonville system is entitled to a 2018-19 exemption to the student transfer provisions in the law based on decisions in a long-running federal school desegregation lawsuit in which Jacksonville/North Pulaski is a party.

In August 2016, U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. reversed a state Board of Education vote to allow a student who resided in the Jacksonville district to attend school in Cabot.

District leaders had challenged the state board vote, asking Marshall to enforce the terms of a 2014 settlement agreement in what is now a 35-year-old desegregation case.

The 2014 settlement in part directed the parties in the case to abide by the state’s School Choice Act as it was written in 2013, which allowed districts to waive participation if the transfers would conflict with federal school desegregation orders or plans in a school district. The 2013 act was revised in 2015 and 2017, after the settlement was in place, to tighten the exemption clause.

The Jacksonville/North Pulaski district didn’t exist at the time of the 2014 settlement in the desegregation case. But the settlement included a provision that allowed the formation of a Jacksonville district carved out of the Pulaski County Special School District.

Marshall in the 2016 Jacksonville school-transfer hearing called the limitations on transfers fundamental to the Pulaski County school desegregation settlement. He said the limits are “one of those things like air and water, that was so much agreed upon by the parties that no one thought to put it into words.”

Richardson said last week that the Jan. 1 notice “for this district it’s really a formality. Everyone knows this exemption applies to this district.”

Steve Anderson, superintendent of the Lake Hamilton School District in Garland County, said Friday that his district will claim an exemption for the 2018-19 school year.

“The seven Garland County public school districts are under a federal desegregation agreement that has been in place for twenty-plus years,” Anderson said. “Therefore, yes, we will be claiming an exemption for the 2018-2019 school year in order to comply with the federal court.

“While we do participate in school choice, we are not allowed to follow the School Choice Act that the vast majority of the rest of the state follows,” he said. “We are required by the federal court to follow the provisions of the School Choice Act of 1989. This includes strict restrictions based on race of both the resident school district and the receiving school district.”

Besides Lake Hamilton, the Garland County districts are Hot Springs, Cutter Morning Star, Fountain Lake, Jessieville, Lakeside and Mountain Pine.

Roberts, the Camden attorney, said an August 2016 order issued by U.S. District Judge Susan Hickey in an El Dorado School District lawsuit over an interdistrict student transfer is applicable to other districts where desegregation cases similarly centered on racially desegregating schools within a district.

“This order prohibits interdistrict transfers under the School Choice Act even though [the El Dorado desegregation case] was not an interdistrict case when the order was entered,” Roberts said.

In her decision Hickey said the El Dorado district’s 1971 order “is an enforceable desegregation order regarding the effects of past racial segregation in student assignment. As such, the order conflicts with participation in the 2015 School Choice Act and the El Dorado School District appropriately declared its conflict with participating in the 2015 Act.

“That conflict means the El Dorado School District is not a participant in or subject to the school choice transfers contemplated by the 2015 Act,” Hickey wrote.

Print Headline: Districts face decisions concerning school choice

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