State board rules school districts shifting to local control can hold school board elections in multiple years

A classroom is shown in this 2015 file photo.
A classroom is shown in this 2015 file photo.

Arkansas election officials approved rules Wednesday clarifying how school districts coming off state control can reclaim local authority.

The rules, approved by the State Board of Election Commissioners, state a school district that shifts from state to local control may hold elections for its new school board members in multiple years, rather than all at once.

Under state law, the Arkansas State Board of Education can take direct control of a school district, classifying it as Level 5 or in need of intensive support.

Often that means the superintendent is fired and the local school board losses its authority until the district is able to meet certain benchmarks from the state to return it to local control. Or after five years, the State Board of Education must return the district to local control, annex it or consolidate it with another district.

The declaratory order the board approved Wednesday, which was requested by Arkansas Secretary of Education Jacob Oliva, is meant to clarify "ambiguity" in the state law that when a district returns to local control it may hold elections over multiple cycles to refill its school board seats, rather than all at once.

"Therefore, the Board would not take enforcement action if individual board of directors were chosen in successive annual school elections following the determination to return a district to full local control so long as the determination to return that district to full local control was made not less than five years following the Department of Education's assumption authority over the public school district," according to the order.

The move is related to a decision the State Board of Education made in September when it awarded local control back to the Pine Bluff School District, which has been under state control since 2018. Pine Bluff is set to take local control of its school district again, and the move has triggered a debate about how the process will work. The State Board of Education approved a plan for the school district to hold election for one seat on the school board each year from 2024-2026 and two in 2027-2028.

Some Pine Bluff stakeholders and advocacy groups cited a recently passed state law, Act 633, which requires the State Board of Education to set criteria within two years under state control for how to return a district back to local authorities. In Pine Bluff, some wanted all seven seats on the school board to be up for election in 2024.

However, the State Board of Election Commissioners order on Wednesday said the state law was ambiguous, saying if the General Assembly had intended for the entire school board to be elected immediately "it could have easily specified that the board would be elected at the next annual school election."

Information for this article was contributed by I.C. Murrell of the Pine Bluff Commercial.

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