The Hughes School District tried unsuccessfully on Thursday to become the first in the state to try to save itself from consolidation by utilizing a newly enacted law. After denying a waiver request the Arkansas Board of Education voted 7-1 to consolidate the schools into the West Memphis School District effective July 1st.
Act 377, passed in March, allows a district which falls below the state’s 350-student minimum to be given a one-year waiver if not in fiscal, academic, or facilities distress. An attorney for the district, James Valley, claimed Hughes was eligible for a waiver despite the state Board listing it as in fiscal distress since 2013.
“Our position is that 'fiscal distress' is not defined in the law and it must be defined in the law and it must be defined in the law if you’re going to apply it the way it’s being applied. What I said was we have 'fiscal distress status 'defined by the state Legislature but 'fiscal distress' itself is not defined,” said Valley.
The attorney for Hughes School District also pointed to the Legislature’s adoption of an emergency clause, putting the law in effect immediately rather than waiting 90 days.
“The emergency clause is the greatest indicator that the Legislature intended for this law to apply immediately. There was only one school district that was in jeopardy so it had to apply to the Hughes School District. You have to reconcile what they put in the statute with what the facts were on the ground and understand they were trying to capture Hughes.”
However, newly-confirmed Education Commissioner Johnny Key said he had no doubt that the Hughes School District is not eligible to receive the waiver.
“Well, it’s just what the law says. It’s not anything that I think we have an opinion on, it is guidance from our counsel that even under the law that was passed – they may dispute whether they’re in fiscal distress or not – but according to the law they are indeed," said Key.
Despite Valley’s post-vote comments about the first-ever application for a consolidation waiver under Act 377, Key thinks there is a consensus about the law’s language.
“I don’t see any lingering question from that, I think that’s probably an isolated case.”
The state Board of Education declined the waiver-bid on 5-3 vote and proceeded to move for consolidation of the district. Representatives of Hughes said they had been pursuing a voluntary merger with the Forrest City School District but that it ultimately fell through.
The board chose to merge the district with West Memphis instead. Board member Diane Zook said she preferred West Memphis School District since it allows for school choice.
Hughes Superintendent. Sheryl Owens said one of the reasons the districts enrollment had dipped below the 350-student threshold for two years in a row - placing the district on the consolidation list - is that some families utilizes school choice options in the West Memphis and Marion school districts .
Attorney Valley said preliminary consolidation talks with the West Memphis and Forrest City districts, both near 25 minutes away, haven't always been encouraging.
“The private conversations have been basically, nobody wanted these children. They couldn’t get up here and say that but privately none of them wanted these children. Forrest City, West Memphis, Earl, Lee County none of them really wanted to have the Hughes children, to take on the Hughes challenge so to speak. From a transportation standpoint and all the other logistics that go with taking in a group of poor children,” Valley said.
The distance from home to school is something parents attending the state Board of Education meeting also were concerned about. Charnella King a parent to three Hughes students was among the distraught after the decision to consolidate.
“My kids are not going to be on no bus all day. So wherever school they go to, it’s where I’m going to have to move to,” said King.
King, whose oldest daughter may be in the last graduating class ever from a Hughes-based high school, thinks it signals the end of the 1,400 person town in eastern St. Francis County.
“It’s going to go down. We ain’t got no school, what else? They might as well close the store, post office, and everything,” said King.
She was joined in Little Rock by about two dozen other members of the Hughes community.