Upcoming state legislative session of interest to local school districts

The upcoming 89th General Assembly of the Arkansas State Legislature that convenes in January will include several topics of interest to the superintendents of the four Jefferson County school districts.

All four believe that the June decision by federal District Court Judge Robert Dawson finding the Arkansas School Choice Act of 1989 unconstitutional will lead to additional legislative activity and each of them believes that the ultimate fate of school choice in Arkansas will have far-reaching effects on their districts.

Pine Bluff interim Superintendent Linda Watson is awaiting the outcome of several brewing issues.

“I’m keeping my eye on school choice and what they’re going to do on school choice,” Watson said. “I am also concerned about the potential for sequestration coming from Washington in January. I hope that our school funding does not go down. Gov. (Mike) Beebe has done a wonderful job at keeping K-12 funding in Arkansas and I hope that we don’t lose it.”

White Hall Superintendent Larry Smith is also looking forward to the outcome of the school choice debate.

“School choice is going to be huge,” Smith said.

There has already been a lot of talk about opening it up more fully so that students can go wherever they want to go, Smith said.

“I do see concern over the possible re-segregation of school districts as well as financial issues. There are also facility issues tied in with it,” Smith said.

“Let’s say 200 kids decide they want to come to the White Hall district and we go from 3,000 students to 3,200,” Smith said. “Say we have to build a new classroom to accommodate them and then the next year they all leave for some reason. How do you plan for that?”

Smith said that the cost to school districts from insurance and teacher retirement is another important concern.

“Teacher retirement took some hits in the past couple of years and unless they get at least an 18 percent return they will be looking for more money from somewhere,” Smith said. “Governor Beebe said the other day at the Arkansas School Board Association meeting that money for that won’t be coming from the state so that makes those of us in the districts a bit worried.”

Smith said that teacher evaluation is yet another topic that he will be watching closely when the General Assembly convenes next month.

“Those are the main things that we are looking to be in place,” Smith said. “We hope that there are no unfunded mandates but it is a possibility. There may be fallout from the mass killing at the school in Connecticut in terms of legislation calling for more security cameras. If nobody wants to pay for it then what do you do? It’s hard to find that money.”

Watson Chapel Superintendent Danny Hazelwood is interested in the outcome of the school choice debate because of his district’s particular history with the topic.

“Since a 2003 court case, our district has been able to accept all school choice kids without regard to race,” Hazelwood said. “Because under the 1970 desegregation order the Watson Chapel district can accept all students we are in kind of a unique situation that way.”

Dollarway Superintendent Frank Anthony had several topics in mind to keep track of starting in January.

“School choice is a hot topic and another issue is the amount of time that a school district can be controlled by the state,” Anthony said. “The Arkansas Department of Education may look at legislation for creating a longer period of time for a state takeover of a school district. Right now the limit is two years. In the case of the Helena-West Helena School District they have been taken over by the state twice in the past six years. There needs to be enough time to get all of the problems taken care of in a district so that it can completely get back on its feet.”