Following a lengthy Monday afternoon hearing, Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Jodi Dennis lifted an injunction against the White Hall School District on a potential sale of the old Redfield Middle School.
WHSD Deputy Superintendent Heath Bennett said Monday night that the opening of four received bids on the property could be completed as soon as Tuesday. The bids originally were scheduled to be unsealed Jan. 14 but that was delayed when Little Rock attorney Paul Byrd, who attended RMS, filed the injunction on behalf of the Save Redfield Middle School and Redfield Tri-County Charter School organizations and a number of individuals.
Byrd told The Commercial that his clients’ aim is to save the historic building, which they view as a cultural and community center and educational “device” worthy of preservation. The school, constructed in 1939 by the federal Works Progress Administration, was closed at the end of the 2012-13 academic year by a January 2013 White Hall School Board vote.
At the conclusion of Monday’s four-and-a-half-hour hearing, Dennis said Byrd had failed to provide evidence of irrevocable damage being committed against the former school should it be sold, which the White Hall board decided to do at its monthly meeting in December. Byrd countered that the district’s own appraisal on the building included demolition as an option, and he worried the Redfield landmark might well be flattened should it be sold to a commercial interest.
Dennis did not close the door on receiving additional evidence from Byrd, but told him that should the site face an immediate threat of demolition, that would be the time for him to seek a new injunction.
Byrd called WHSD Superintendent Larry Smith and board members Roy Agee, Dean Dancer, Raymond Jones and Connie Medsker to the stand for questioning. Byrd argued the board was misguided in its consideration of giving away the old school by WHSD attorney Spencer Robinson, district financial advisers and Smith.
Byrd quizzed board members on whether they would have voted to donate the building to a qualifying entity had they been aware that some of the guidance to which they referred in their decision to sell may have been contradicted by recent legal developments.
Robinson accused Byrd of being argumentative in his pressing of Jones on the issue. Dennis cautioned Byrd, saying that Jones’ decision to sell “wasn’t necessarily wrong.” Jones said he believed the board had received the “correct information and made the best decision” at the time of the vote.
Agee, Dancer and Medsker said the new details provided by Byrd could have influenced and possibly changed their actions. Agee and Dancer said they’ve never been personally opposed to seeing the property being donated, but Agee pointed out that several groups — including two churches — have asked for the site. Agee wondered aloud to whom the site should possibly be given, and if the donation occurred whether the rejected parties would bring the matter back to court.
Medsker said that had she been aware of the latest information, she would have worked to change the minds of other board members. Medsker is the board’s Redfield representative.
Smith had said that he was advised that simply deeding away the facility would violate a federal Internal Revenue Service rule dealing with such matters on schools under bond issue funding.
Byrd also called for the testimony of Felecia Holman of Pine Bluff, who said her two middle school-aged African-American children were denied state school choice enrollment for 2012-13 at White Hall Middle School. She said she was told by a White Hall School District official that her children instead would have to attend RMS, resulting in Holman having to drive a total of 100 miles each day to transport the children to and from school.
Byrd asked if her children were allowed to attend WHMS when the Redfield site closed, and she answered affirmatively.
“They somehow made room for you?” Byrd asked. “Yes,” replied Holman, who added that she never received an explanation as to why the change occurred.
Byrd made several references to the Dollarway School District and a possibility that WHSD could receive some of its students should the Dollarway district, which was taken over by the state in 2012, be dissolved.
Under questioning from Byrd, Dean said he has not discussed that issue with his fellow directors, but said that most WHSD constituents he has spoken with don’t want the district to absorb any students from Dollarway.