Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Pulling out all the stops to save a rural school (Part IV): Could Arkansas's three most remote schools be saved if clustered together?

This spring, I wrote a couple of blog posts here and here about the efforts of the Deer-Mt. Judea School District in the rural Arkansas Ozarks to avoid consolidation. At that point, the District was pursuing legal remedies--or more precisely, a change in the law--that would prevent forced consolidation of the district with the neighboring Jasper District. The reason Deer-Mt. Judea was at risk of forced consolidation is that its student population had fallen below 350, which under Arkansas law is the death knell for a district's independence. The District argued that the state's formula for funding transportation--paying a flat fee of $289/student--is unfair to rural schools like those in Newton County, where transportation per student costs about $900/year.

The legal efforts of the Deer-Mt. Judea District went nowhere with the courts. This is not terribly surprising since no other Arkansas school district has found a successful legal strategy since a major round of forced consolidations in 2004. Also, the trial court hearing the Deer-Mt. Judea case is in Pulaski County, which includes Little Rock; as the home of the state capital, it is apparently the designated venue in which such cases must be filed. Thus, the trial court making the initial determination in such cases is not a local court that is more likely to be familiar with the area--and therefore perhaps more sympathetic to local residents' desire to keep their school. The most recent post about this effort in the courts is here.

That most recent post indicated that Deer-Mt. Judea might make overtures toward the Jasper District about merging, but more recent issues of the Newton County Times indicate that the Deer-Mt. Judea District is now seeking a different partner to avoid consolidation. It is now courting the school at Oark, in Johnson County, to join its District. Oark has about 150 students total (K-12), and the addition of these students into the Deer-Mt. Judea District would save the District, which would presumably keep a campus at Oark. Oark is about 34 miles (more than an hour's drive) from Deer, of which a third are on county roads (which were unpaved when I was growing up and may still be).

The problem facing the Deer-Mt. Judea District as it pursues this new strategy is that the Oark school became part of the Jasper District in 2004, when many schools were "re-aligned" (a/k/a consolidated) after a landmark Arkansas Supreme Court decision regarding K-12 funding and standards. Now, admittedly, this didn't make a lot of sense at the time because Oark is about 20 miles farther from Jasper than it is from Deer. (Nor did the fact that the Kingston school, in neighboring Madison County, also consolidated with Jasper. Kingston is 28 miles/47 minutes from Jasper but just 20 miles on better roads from Huntsville in Madison County). But, perhaps because Oark and Deer were rivals--just as Jasper and Deer were rivals--Oark joined the Jasper District instead of the Deer-Mt. Judea District.

Now, a number of patrons of the Oark school (reports vary on the number, ranging from 75 to 185) have signed a petition indicating they wish to join the Deer-Mt. Judea District. Some of Oark's unhappiness with the Jasper District may be because the Jasper Board of Education recently rejected a grievance by the Oark principal, Anita Cooper, following her dismissal by the district superintendent. According to story in the Oct. 19, 2011 issue of the Newton County Times, many Oark district patrons supported the principal and attended the Jasper Board of Education meeting to advocate for her. The scene highlights the fact that Oark school patrons must find it pretty galling to be governed by a District and Board that is sited 55 miles away, even though the Board has one member from Oark. Moving into the Deer-Mt. Judea District would put Oark residents nearer the governing district's center of gravity, Deer, which probably looks attractive.

In a future post, I'll discuss the Jasper District's response to the Oark petition to join Deer-Mt. Judea. For now, I want to discuss Deer-Mt. Judea's statements regarding what is at stake and what it would take to achieve the move. The superintendent of the Deer-Mt. Judea District, Richard Denniston, told the District's Board of Education at its Oct. 20 meeting, "We're in survival mode" because of the current enrollment figures. He continued:
Eight years ago when we went through the process of choosing a partner (for state mandated consolidation), before Mt. Judea was a player, we were trying to see which direction we were going at public meetings. We had five (Oark) board members and the superintendent attend our public forum, stood up and said, 'we're here to sign with Deer.' At that time, we didn't get a favorable vote. Now, they have a petition by a coalition that they want to come to Deer. They have approximately 185 signatures.
The reporter does not explain Denniston's comment about the lack of a favorable vote--that is, whether Deer voted not to accept Oark or Oark ultimately decided not to join Deer.

Denniston goes on to explain the steps that lie ahead if Oark is to join the Deer-Mt. Judea district now.
Here is the main issue. When you have small numbers you are an isolated school--and it only impacts isolated schools. If you can't meet standards of accreditation and one of which is how many students in each of the 38 courses--and in the upper end those are your physics, pre-cal, transition math and chemistry, etc.--if you can't fill that slot you have the possibility of Deer not getting $1.1 million in isolated funding. If you're at Jasper, the same scenario, they have the possibility of losing $1.5 million of operating funding.

In order to make this work it's just not Oark coming to us. It's Oark coming to us with us getting the state department [of education] or the legislators to agree to an umbrella that will be a consortium for grades 9-12 under one LEA (local education agency). That way you can use aggregate numbers 9-12.
Denniston continued by reference to "real numbers." Oark has seven seniors, Mt. Judea just nine and Deer, 13. With 30 seniors, Denniston surmised the combined District would have a "good chance" of filling the required 38 course slots. Denniston noted the District's current situation in regard to these upper division courses:
Right now at Mt. Judea, five of those classes have one student in each of them. At the start of the year in Deer there was one student.
Denniston concluded by calling the clustering of "the three most remote schools in Arkansas" a safety net. He said the proposed Deer/Mt. Judea/Oark School District would cover about 664 square miles, which is about the size of the current Jasper School District, with its campuses at Jasper, Oark and Kingston. Denniston speculates that Mt. Judea and Oark are "probably the smallest schools in the state." These schools "are more than isolated, they are remote, a term that state officials are hesitant to use."

The Deer-Mt. Judea Board of Education closed its Oct. 20 meeting by passing a resolution that the Board would petition the state Board of Education to "adjust the boundary lines of the Deer/Mt. Judea School district to include the territory of the former Oark School district that is now part of the Jasper School District, and to rename the district to include Oark."

In future posts, I will discuss additional angles on this effort at re-alignment of these schools, including the relevant Arkansas law and the perspective of the Jasper district--including why it finds the Oark school/campus and territory so attractive.

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