The Jacksonville/North Pulaski School District wants to opt out of participating in Arkansas' School Choice Act interdistrict student transfer initiative in the 2019-20 school year, just as it has in the past.
Leaders in the state's newest district -- now in its third year -- are seeking an exemption from the law out of concern that a potential loss of Jacksonville students to other districts would jeopardize funding for school construction projects.
Those projects include a new middle school and three elementary schools, which officials say are necessary for the district to attain release from federal court monitoring of its desegregation efforts.
"I would be totally against going full blow into school choice," School Board member Jim Moore said at a meeting on Monday night.
Moore said the district could lose more than $800,000 if the maximum 3 percent of students -- about 125 -- transfer out of the Jacksonville district to schools in other districts.
The school-choice law caps transfers out of a district to no more than 3 percent of the district's enrollment.
Moore made the motion against participating in the School Choice Act, which was adopted in a 4-2 vote with one abstention, at the Monday night School Board meeting.
The 3,793-student district will notify the Arkansas Department of Education of its decision by the state agency's Dec. 15 deadline. If the district's plan is denied by the state agency staff, then district leaders can appeal to the state Board of Education, and ultimately federal court.
The Jacksonville district won't have the same level of legal support for opting out that it had this current year and in the past, Scott Richardson, an attorney for the district, told the School Board before the vote.
Until now, the district relied on the language in a 2014 settlement agreement in the long-running Pulaski County school desegregation lawsuit to oppose allowing resident students to transfer out of the district and non-resident students to transfer in.
But the terms of that 2014 settlement agreement expire at the conclusion of this school year, Richardson said.
The district will have other arguments to offer for an exemption, he said. Those would likely be based on the need for stable enrollment and funding to meet desegregation requirements, he added.
Gary Newton, executive director of Arkansas Learns, an organization that advocates for school choice for students and their families, said in an interview Tuesday that the state criteria for attaining an exemption to the School Choice Act is specific.
"You have to have a conflicting federal court order, and they don't," Newton said about Jacksonville and the expired language in the settlement agreement.
Newton said that the Jacksonville district has decided to ask its voters in May to approve the extension of one of the highest property tax rates in the state but that it doesn't trust its residents with the choice to decide where they want to send their kids to school.
"That's not the way to serve your citizens," he said.
The School Board voted at its meeting this week to ask voters to continue the levy of 22.4 property tax mills earmarked for paying off bond debt for additional years as a way to issue and pay off new bonds for school construction.
"I would think that the citizens of Jacksonville would want as many options as they could get, including people who might want to transfer into the district," Newton said. "If they are proud of what they are doing there, then they ought to work to attract students and families to come in."
In 2016, the Arkansas Education Board voted to allow a student who resided in the Jacksonville district to attend school in Cabot. Jacksonville district leaders challenged that state board vote, asking U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. to enforce the terms of the 2014 settlement agreement, which he did -- allowing the hardened borders.
Marshall is the presiding judge in the now 36-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 -- said the limits on interdistrict student transfers were 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."
Jacksonville/North Pulaski School Board members who voted to apply for a 2019-2020 exemption were Moore, Dena Toney, Marcia Dorenblaser and LaConda Watson. Those opposed were Daniel Gray and Ava Coleman. Board President Ron McDaniel abstained from voting.
"Now that the [federal court] agreement is over, I don't think we need to come from a place of fear," Gray said about the student transfers. "I think we need to compete. If parents don't want to be here or they don't want their children in our schools, I don't want them here either. If they want to go, go."
"I would be in favor of participating in choice," Gray said.
Toney suggested that the board could ask for the exemption from the state and, if denied, decide at that point whether to pursue the matter in federal court.
Metro on 12/05/2018
Print Headline: District seeks transfer exemption; Jacksonville schools’ officials fear loss of building funds