You’ve got to credit the Friends of Weiner with persistence. Having failed to stop the closure of the Weiner school, the group is back with an application for a charter school.
The idea might work, but it faces an uphill climb. Meanwhile, the high school closed July 1 by order of the state Board of Education after a long-running battle waged by school patrons.
By all measures except one, the Weiner school, established in 1883, was successful in educating young people of the community. That one, though, was critical — the state’s requirement that every school district have at least 350 students.
That minimum was set in Act 60 of 2003, a far-reaching reform of public education spearheaded by then-Gov. Mike Huckabee. The law has been responsible for many public schools going out of business. Weiner is just the latest.
The 350 minimum is low compared to what originally was proposed. The first version of the overhaul plan would have set the minimum number at 1,500 students. That would have reduced the number of school districts in Arkansas from 310 to 110.
That plan had no chance of passage, and an interim proposal for a minimum of 450 was later amended in a special legislative session to the final 350.
Weiner stayed above that level for several years, but with the town losing population, the school’s fate was inevitable. Several attempts to amend the law have failed. After finally satisfying the court system with educational reforms made necessary because of the Lake View case, legislators are understandably reluctant to revisit the details.
When the district fell below 350 in 2008 and 2009, the state Department of Education stepped in to order a consolidation or annexation. Weiner school officials negotiated with all bordering districts, but didn’t find a good fit.
In desperation the boards of the Weiner and Delight districts proposed an administrative consolidation — a novel idea because Delight, also under 350 students, is about 200 miles from Weiner. As might be expected, that plan was rejected by the state board.
Under pressure from the state, Weiner in February 2010 worked out a petition of annexation with Harrisburg. The agreement called for the Weiner campus to stay open at least through the 2011 school year.
A lawsuit filed by the Friends of Weiner to stop the annexation got nowhere.
While the alliance was uneasy from the beginning, Harrisburg kept the Weiner campus open through the past year. But it became a drag on the district’s finances, and in December Superintendent Danny Sample recommended closure.
This time another magic number saved the Weiner school for a time. State law requires a unanimous decision of the board on such a closure, and the directors’ vote was 4-1. That sent the issue to the state board, which in March voted 5-2 to close the high school. The elementary school at Weiner will stay open for at least another year.
The Friends of Weiner weren’t through yet. The group persuaded state Rep. John Hutchison, R-Harrisburg, to sponsor a bill that would have established an Arkansas School for Agriculture in grades K-12, which presumably would have been located in Weiner. But the bill didn’t get out of committee before adjournment.
Now the group has a more practical proposal, filing an application for a charter school to be called the Northeast Arkansas School of Agriculture.
According to an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette story, the school would serve up to 250 students in grades 7-12 and would provide an instructional program combining national education standards of teaching for college and career preparation with instruction of skills needed for working in the agricultural business industry.
In a letter of intent filed with the application, planners Michelle Cadle of Weiner and Greta Greeno of Fisher wrote: “The purpose of this school is to meet the needs Arkansas agri-businesses face with an aging work force and a lack of qualified candidates in a rapidly changing and increasingly sophisticated agriculture economy.”
They pointed out that 17 of every 100 jobs in Arkansas are agriculture-related so the state’s economy is still heavily dependent on an agriculture base.
One problem is the timetable for starting such a school. Filing the application is just the beginning of the process. The planners have until Sept. 3 to submit a detailed proposal showing how such a school would operate. If approved, the school could open as early as the fall of 2014.
But Weiner’s is one of 11 new applications, and the process is demanding. The state will have only 17 open-enrollment charters operating this fall.
Meanwhile, the Weiner High School will be dark this fall. Most students will attend the Harrisburg High School, and some will transfer to other schools. The nearby Westside district has received 18 School Choice applications from students formerly enrolled at Weiner.
Teen-agers are famously reluctant to move once they get established and make friends.
Nevertheless, the charter school proposal may be the best answer to an injustice inflicted on the Weiner community by a law that puts a magic number above quality of education.
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Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.