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story.lead_photo.caption Sen. Joyce Elliott (right) and Sen. Linda Chesterfield, both Democrats from Little Rock, look at photos on the phone of Sen. Larry Teague, D-Nashville, in this photo. - Photo by Thomas Metthe

Lawmakers have introduced a bill seeking to relax the requirement that the state Board of Education must annex, consolidate or reconstitute a state-controlled school district that does not meet the criteria for release within five years.

Senate Bill 553, filed Tuesday, says the Arkansas Education Board "may" annex or consolidate a state-controlled district, rather than the mandatory "shall" that is currently in the law.

The bill has the potential to affect the Little Rock and Dollarway school districts, both of which have been operating under state control without locally elected school boards for nearly five years. The Pine Bluff and Earle school districts also are operating under state control.

The new bill goes on to list the conditions under which the state Education Board must return a state-controlled district to the operation of a locally elected school board.

One condition for release of a district would be if the number of schools classified as "Level 5 - in need of intensive support" has increased in the time that a school district has operated under the authority of the state board.

[RELATED: Complete Democrat-Gazette coverage of the Arkansas Legislature]

The bill also proposes that a state-controlled school district "shall be returned to local control if, after five years," the district has demonstrated substantial improvement of the issues that caused the district to be labeled as needing intensive support.

A district would also be eligible for release from state authority if the Education Board concludes that:

• The district has adopted a plan to correct the issues that caused the Level 5 classification.

• All the schools within the labeled district are making demonstrable progress towards the removal of the label.

The bill was introduced in the Senate by Sens. Will Bond, Linda Chesterfield and Joyce Elliott, all Democratic Party members from Little Rock.

House sponsors are Reps. Andrew Collins, Charles Blake and Tippi McCullough, also Democrats from Little Rock.

The Little Rock district's seven-member school board was dismissed and its superintendent placed under the direction of the state's education commissioner in January 2015 after six of its then 48 schools were labeled as academically distressed for chronically low scores on state-required math and literacy tests. Since then, the academic distress label has been removed from three of the six schools, and the state's school accountability system has been overhauled and no longer tags individual schools as "distressed."

The Little Rock district is labeled by the state as "Level 5 - in need of intensive support" under the new accountability system. Individual schools receive A to F letter grades from the state based on state test results, achievement gains on those annual tests and on other factors such as student attendance and graduation rates. Little Rock has eight schools that have F grades based on the 2018 test. The 2019 tests will be given next month.

A Section on 03/14/2019

Print Headline: Bill focuses on rules to let school districts leave state's control

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