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story.lead_photo.caption Richard Abernathy, the executive director of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators, is shown in this file photo.

Vacant or underused public school buildings across Arkansas will be catching second looks from charter school operators in the coming months -- the result of a law passed in early 2017 and the proposed rules for carrying out that law.

The state Division of Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation will hold a public hearing at 1:30 p.m. Thursday on the draft rules that bear the rather unwieldy title of "Rules Governing the Right of Access to Unused or Underutilized Public School Facilities and the Sale or Lease of Public School Facilities."

The draft rules, which are based on the provisions of Act 542 of 2017, describe the process by which a charter school operator can buy or lease at a fair market price a school building from a conventional public school district.

The law and rules come at a time when Arkansas is peppered with vacant or underused school buildings resulting from several years of school and school district consolidations plus a new-school-construction boom brought on by the state's partnership program for assisting with building costs.

They also come at a time when the Little Rock School District, which is the state's largest district and is located in an area that's already home to several of the state's charter schools, is sitting on two vacant buildings -- Woodruff Early Childhood Education Center and W.D. Hamilton Learning Academy. J.A. Fair High and Cloverdale Middle schools in the district are likely to be vacated within a few years.

Open-enrollment charter schools and conventional school districts often compete for the same students and for state funding for educating those students.

"We do have some schools out there that were just boarded up after consolidation," Richard Abernathy, the executive director of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators, said Friday.

"There were instances around the state where people wanted to use those schools, but they [districts] for whatever reason said, 'No.' You don't want that," Abernathy said, "but at the same time you don't want charter schools just taking over school buildings. There has got to be a balance there. I don't know if this law is the balance, but we sure worked on it."

By Feb. 1 of each year, the proposed rules say, school districts must send to the state division of academic facilities a report that identifies:

• All unused or underused school facilities.

• All unused or underused school buildings that are designated by the district for reuse, renovation or demolition as part of a particular building project or new construction project.

By March 1 of each year, the division will identify all vacant and underused school buildings in the state, put that list of school buildings on its website and notify the affected school districts of the classification for one or more of its campuses.

The law and the draft rules include a process by which a school district can appeal the division's classification of a building as unused or underused. That appeal would be considered by the three-member Commission for Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation.

The commission's chairman is Arkansas Education Commissioner Johnny Key.

Once the state division identifies a public school facility as surplus, "a public charter school may give notice of its intent to purchase or lease the public school facility."

However, a district that says it has plans to reuse, renovate or demolish a currently vacant building for another use will have time under the proposed rules -- two years -- to do that before a charter school can proceed to acquire the unused or underused property at a fair price to the district.

If a public school district and public charter school can't agree on terms of a sale or lease of the district property within 60 days, the charter school operator can petition the state commission to set the lease price and the length of the lease, which can be between five and 30 years.

The proposed rules state that the commission can deny a charter school operator's petition for a vacant public school building if there is evidence that the space will be needed by the school district to accommodate future growth of the school district. Or the petition can be denied if the charter school acquisition of a space would have "a materially negative impact on the overall education" at another campus located within 500 feet of the property being sought.

School districts can choose right now to provide unused space to an open-enrollment charter school, Abernathy said.

"We just don't think they need to be forced to do that," he said, adding that school districts sometimes permit other community organizations, such as adult education programs or Boys and Girls clubs, to use vacant school space. "We don't want those groups thrown out. We think we put a balance in the law, but I want to make sure the rules follow the law."

Abernathy said his organization of superintendents and other school system leaders will be evaluating and monitoring the proposed rules over the next few days and weeks.

The proposed rules are subject to approval by the Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation Commission and a couple of legislative groups, including the Legislative Council, before they are finalized.

Abernathy predicted that implementation of the law and rules will be "tricky" because there are so many different scenarios out there.

"The facilities division is really going to have to look over each situation," he said, noting that a growing district may want to tear down a building and use the space for a new school or a bus barn. "We worked through that, and school districts will have that option. It just won't be as easy as in the past."

The public hearing on the rules will be in Room 201A of the Arkansas Department of Education building, 4 Capitol Mall in Little Rock. Written comments on the issue can be emailed through Jan. 15 to: ADE.RulesComments@arkansas.gov.

The proposed rules can be found on this Web page: http://bit.ly/2BTClJb.

Metro on 01/01/2018

Print Headline: Rules drafted for charters' school-site use

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