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Pulaski County Special School Board sets date for parent requested meeting on mask policy

Parent petition cues session by Cynthia Howell | October 29, 2021 at 3:11 a.m.

The School Board for the Pulaski County Special School District has scheduled a meeting for 5 p.m. Nov. 9 in response to a parent group that petitioned for a meeting to consider reversing the mandate that students and employees wear face masks when indoors.

The district specified that a 45-minute special meeting will begin one hour before the School Board's regularly scheduled monthly meeting at 6 p.m.

The parent group, led by Rebekah L. Davis, Wendy Potter and Karyn M. Maynard, submitted the citizen-signed petitions on Oct. 22. They initially asked for a special meeting to be held one day this current week, but in later discussions with district leaders asked for a Monday, Nov. 1 session.

Jessica Duff, a spokeswoman for the district, distributed a written statement Thursday that suggested that a sufficient number of board members would not be available for a meeting before Nov. 9.

"Pulaski County Special School District acknowledges the request by a group of PCSSD electors to hold a special board meeting to discuss the mask mandate in the district," the district statement said.

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"On Wednesday, Oct. 28, the district offered to include the discussion during the regular meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 9, as a separate agenda item," the statement continued. "However, the representatives of the group declined this request and asked for a meeting to be held on Monday, Nov. 1 at 6 p.m.

"Based on the availability of the Board of Education, PCSSD will hold a special board meeting prior to the regular board meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 9," the statement said. "The special board meeting will begin at 5 p.m. and conclude at 5:45 p.m. followed by the regular scheduled board meeting, which will begin at 6 p.m."

Davis, one of the leaders of the petition drive, called the district plan "frustrating" and "disappointing."

"We can't force them to show up," said Davis, who called the process eye-opening. "They have too much power," she said of the board, adding that the parent leaders are now encouraging district residents to vote against the proposed restructuring of bond debt at Tuesday's school election in return for the board's "dis-respect" of the petitioners.

Davis has said that the parent petitioners are not anti-mask but want mask wearing by students to be a matter of parent choice.

Arkansas Code Annotated 6-13-619 states that the board of directors of a public school district shall meet when petitioned to do so by "50 qualified electors in the school district." The petition must contain the printed name and address of each elector signing the petition and must meet other qualifying factors.

The petition for a meeting to repeal the mask mandate comes after the School Board voted 4-2 on Oct. 12 to continue for another 60 days a requirement that students and employees wear masks when inside schools in an effort to limit the spread of covid-19.

Board members Brian Maune and Eli Keller voted against continuing the mask mandate. Board members Linda Remele, Stephen Delaney, Tina Ward and Shelby Thomas voted to keep it. Board member Lindsey Gustafson was absent that night.

The parent group asked in the petition that the special session be conducted in a way in which district patrons can personally attend and can address the board.

The Pulaski County Special district has been among the top five Arkansas school districts in terms of numbers of active covid-19 cases in recent days, according to the Arkansas Department of Health's twice-a-week report on active and cumulative covid cases in school systems.

As of Thursday, the district ranked third-highest in the state with 35 active cases, down from the 36 cases reported Monday and last Thursday. The district was behind only Rogers School District, which had 66 cases on Thursday and Bentonville that had 56 cases.

Maynard, who described herself as the parent of a district student, emailed the petition to the School Board members last week with an introductory note asking for the repeal of the district's mask mandate, saying that it was put into effect on Aug. 10 "without constitutional authority."

She cited as support a recent ruling by Benton County Circuit Judge Xollie Duncan in a parent lawsuit against the Bentonville School Board. Duncan said in that ruling that she could find no state law that gave the Bentonville district the authority to issue a mask mandate. She granted the parents' request for a temporary order that keeps the district from enforcing the mandate.

However, courts in Pulaski and Lonoke County have allowed temporary mask mandates, pending full hearings on the matter.

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Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox's Aug. 6 decision in a different lawsuit stopped the state from enforcing Act 1002 of 2021. Act 1002 barred school districts and other government agencies from requiring people to wear the masks. Hutchinson signed the bill into law but later said he regretted it as the number of covid-19 cases surged in the summer.

Lonoke County Circuit Judge Barbara Elmore on Aug. 27 declined the plaintiffs' request for a temporary order lifting the mandate.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson has said it is important for school districts to have flexibility on requiring masks, particularly as long as children under 12 years old are ineligible for covid-19 vaccinations.

Information for this article was contributed by Andy Davis of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Print Headline: Mask mandate focus of board's special meeting

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