Sunday, April 24, 2011

Pulling out all the stops to save a rural school (Part I): Suing the state with a focus on transportation

The Newton County Times, my hometown weekly, reported in December, 2010, that the Deer-Mt. Judea school district had filed suit against the state of Arkansas to prevent the district's consolidation with the neighboring Jasper School District (my own alma mater). The Mt. Judea and Deer schools (Deer is my mother's alma mater)--two of four schools in Newton County--consolidated with one another in 2004, following Act 57 of 2003, which established the state's current educational funding structure and set the target district size at 500, "using factors like transportation and personnel." Under that Act, the Arkansas Board of Education forces consolidation of districts with fewer than 350 students. The enrollment in the Deer-Mt. Judea district is currently 363, so the lawsuit is a preemptive strike. On March 17, 2011, the Pulaski County Circuit Court dismissed the district's suit.

The Deer-Mt. Judea district made some interesting legal and factual arguments in its suit against the governor, the state department of education, and other defendants. However, my impression is that most of the purely legal arguments have failed in recent suits brought by other districts. Suits by schools in Lake View, Two Rivers (Yell County), Elaine, and Paron (Saline County) have all failed in recent years, with those school districts since having been consolidated with others.

According to stories in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, one focus of the suit by Deer-Mt. Judea is the disproportionate cost of transportation borne by rural districts. The state pays a flat rate of $286/student for transportation, regardless of district size. This leaves more densely populated and compact school districts with a windfall, while creating hardship for rural and remote districts whose students are spatially dispersed. For 2008-2009, the state's transportation allotment for Deer-Mt. Judea was just $108,294, representing about a third of its total transport costs. Meanwhile, the state transport allotment for the Fort Smith district was $1.5 million more than the district actually spent on transportation. The Deer-Mt. Judea district sought an injunction against consolidation and a ban on school bus rides longer than 45-minutes each way. It also sought recognition that the state owes the same quality of education to children who are bused as to those who are not.

Other Arkansas schools have also recently made arguments related to the constitutionality of long bus rides in the past few years, but those have not gained much purchase with the Arkansas Supreme Court. In 2006, a trial court judge rued that Paron High School (Saline County) should be kept open to avoid the students having to make four-hour bus rides, but the state Supreme Court soon overruled that decision.

Apart from the lawsuit, Richard Denniston, superintendent of the Deer-Mt. Judea district, has reportedly tried several tactics to convince legislators to act in the interests of rural schools. One story reports:
A bus tour of the district--complete with a bus breakdown that left legislators stranded on a hillside--was among Denniston's previous attempts to gain legislative support against a merger.
The story does not make clear whether Denniston planned the breakdown--or only the tour.

The Deer-Mt. Judea district has filed notice of appeal. In a subsequent post, I will discuss other efforts by the district to save itself.

A list of Arkansas high schools is available here. I took these photos of buildings at the Deer School on a recent visit to Newton County. Note the USDA Rural Development logos on the sign at the school. I noticed several such signs around the county, all touting the federal money coming into the county to help fund infrastructure projects. Another such sign was at the Jasper sewage treatment plant.

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