State charter facilities rules up for vote; law lets schools buy unused sites

Proposed rules for carrying out a 2017 state law meant to give open-enrollment charter schools easier access to vacant or little-used traditional school campuses will go for a vote Monday by the state's Commission for Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation.

The proposed rules, 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 -- an unused or little-used school building from a conventional public school system.

If approved at the 1 p.m. meeting by the three-member commission of state agency heads, the proposed rules would then go to various legislative committees for review and to be finalized.

The 2017 law, posted list of properties and proposed rules all 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 school construction boom initiated by the state's partnership program for helping school districts with their construction costs.

The proposed rules were the subject of an initial public hearing in January. Speakers at the event urged that the draft rules be revised to include more specificity in definitions regarding an underused school district building.

The revised draft rules do that, Lori Freno, lead counsel for the Arkansas Department of Education and the Division of Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation, said Friday. The revised draft rules attracted no speakers at a second public forum, she said.

Public school facilities that are used fewer than 90 days per school year are considered underused in the latest set of draft rules.

In the case of public school properties such as gymnasiums and auditoriums that get less frequent use, the draft rules consider them to be underused and potentially available to a charter school if they are used fewer than 12 times per school year.

Similarly, a facility is to be considered underused if less than 40 percent of its square footage is used for educational, extracurricular or administrative purposes on a regular basis, the proposed rules say.

The state law and the proposed rules call for school districts to submit to the state facilities division by Feb. 1 of each year a report that identifies all unused- or little-used facilities.

Districts are also supposed to report their plans, if any, for reusing, renovating or demolishing the vacant or little-used space as part of a new project.

The draft rules note that if a public charter school operator believes that a public school district facility is underused or not used, the operator can bring the property to the attention of the state facilities division by email on or before Feb. 1 so that the assertion can be investigated.

While a school district can appeal a decision by the facilities division that its property is little used or not used, state law does not provide a means for a charter school to make a formal appeal of a division's finding that a district is adequately using its property.

The facilities division is to publish on its website by March 1 each year a list of all the unused or underused public school properties.

The facilities division did that for the first time this past February in compliance with Act 542.

More than 200 buildings and pieces of property owned by 76 school districts -- including Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County Special districts -- were identified by the state for the first time as vacant or underused and potentially available for charter school use. Listed properties included leased-out farm land, a cemetery, a storm cellar and a superintendent's dwelling, along with more conventional school buildings.

Metro on 06/24/2018