Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Pulling out all the stops to save a rural school (Part VI): The value of the "isolated" school designation

I wrote in recent posts, here and here, of the efforts of the Deer-Mt. Judea School District in the Arkansas Ozarks to attract Oark school patrons away from the Jasper District, their current home. The Jasper Board of Education passed a resolution at its December 15 meeting "resolving not to cede territory to other school districts," according to the December 21, 2011 issue of the Newton County Times. An excerpt from the Jasper District resolution follows:
Whereas in the eight years since the merger, the resulting school district sand its school administration team have made substantial improvements and repairs to the physical plant at Oark Campus, substantially increased the salaries of the former Oark School District employees, and has spent countless hours forging a healthy and productive relationship with the students, parents and community members in Oark;
The resolution also referenced a December 17, 2009 public meeting with Oark school patrons at which none of the 100 or so in attendance expressed a desire to leave the Jasper School District to join the Deer-Mt. Judea district. This suggests, of course, that the issue of Oark joining Deer-Mt. Judea was on the table as recently as two years ago.

Also at the December Jasper Board of Education meeting, the members of the board and the superintendent explained that the petition recently submitted by those purporting to be Oark School patrons did not feature the requisite 75 "verifiable signatures"--meaning registered voters in the school district. The Board therefore decided not to meet with the petitioners because it was not required to do so under Arkansas law. The District's lawyer advised that doing so might set a bad precedent by which future disgruntled patrons, though few in number, might expect an audience with the Board of Education regarding grievances.

One thing the Jasper Board of Education resolution did not mention is the state funding it receives because Oark is an isolated school. I wrote an earlier post about funding for isolated schools, but I have recently learned more about what qualifies as an isolated school and a bit more about how much state funding is associated with the status. First, to qualify as an isolated school, the school must meet four of these five criteria:
  • There is a distance of twelve (12) miles or more by hard-surfaced highway from the high school of the district to the nearest adjacent high school in an adjoining district;
  • The density ratio of transported students is less than three (3) students per square mile of area;
  • The total area of the district is ninety-five square miles (95 sq. mi.) or greater;
  • Less than fifty percent (50%) of the bus route miles is on hard-surfaced roads;
  • There are geographic barriers such as lakes, rivers, and mountain ranges that would impede travel to schools that otherwise would be appropriate for consolidation, cooperative programs, and shared services.
The law that provides this definition (Arkansas Code Annotated Section 6-20-601) goes on to state that an isolated school is eligible to receive isolated funding if three criteria are met:
  • the school district's budget is prepared by the school district with Department of Education approval;
  • the school district has a prior-year three quarter average daily membership of less than three hundred fifty (350); and
  • the school district and each school within the school district meets the minimum standards for accreditation of public schools prescribed by law and regulation.
So, just how valuable is this "isolated" designation? According to this 2005 news story, up to $4.8 million dollars is available each year to be divided among the state's 27 isolated schools. An excerpt from that 2005 story follows, providing background on the "isolated" designation and what lawmakers saw as at stake. The excerpt begins with a quote from the law's sponsor, Representative Roy Ragland of Marshall, in Searcy County:
"This is probably the most important bill for me and my district," [Ragland] told colleagues. The bill would deliver about $4.8 million to the state's remotest schools in an effort to help them meet new education requirements, such as an increase in the state's minimum teacher salaries.

If the schools can't meet state standards, the state could close them, forcing even longer bus rides for students in those districts.

SB 191 passed 70-11 and now goes to the governor.

Ragland told House members there is not a companion appropriation bill. Rather, the $4.8 million would come out of the regular general fund, but only if available.

To illustrate the need for additional funding, Ragland used the consolidated Huntsville and St. Paul School District, located in his North Arkansas district.

The new district is paying about $200,000 annually to keep the tiny St. Paul schools open. If those schools close, students there would have to be bused more than 60 miles to schools in Huntsville.

Also, the rugged back roads would make the bus trip very dangerous, he said, adding that there are 27 isolated schools in the state, with about 7,000 students, which would split the $4.8 million.

"This is to subsidize those schools," Ragland said.
More recent data indicate the following amounts associated with the isolated school funding at Deer, Mt. Judea, Oark, and Kingston. I also note, for the sake of comparison, how much the Huntsville district gets for the St. Paul isolated schools (referring to all grades, K-12, not literally to multiple schools), to which Ragland referred in his 2005 comments. Note that it is substantially less than the Jasper District and the Deer-Mt. Judea districts receive.

Deer-Mt. Judea District (for those two campuses): $210,968
Jasper District (for Oark and Kingston): $296,874
Huntsville District (for St. Paul): $24,233

These payments, in February 2011 (click on "Isolated" in right hand column), represent one of two "isolated" payments to each district for FY 2011. However, the second of the two payments for FY 2011, in June 2011, are much smaller, e.g., for Jasper just $98,958 and for Huntsville, just over $8000.

Looking at the payments to all of the Arkansas school districts, the Jasper District (for Oark) receives more than any other district, following somewhat closely by the Ozark Mountain District (which covers parts of Newton County and Searcy County), which receives $232,347, and the Cossatot River District, which receives $245,538 for tiny schools at Umpire, all in Polk and Howard Counties.

In a future post, I will discuss the Ozark Mountain District's recent decision to annex an additional school, the one at Lead Hill.

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