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Area superintendents disagree with Huckabee's consolidation proposal

Thursday, January 23, 2003

Arkansas school administrators had mixed reactions after Gov. Huckabee announced his plans, outlined in his State of the State address Jan. 14, to eliminate approximately two-thirds of the state's school districts. Fulton and Izard county superintendents said they think restructuring of public schools according to Huckabee's plans will need to be reworked by lawmakers.

The local superintendents agree that if consolidation is forced upon the smaller schools it might not benefit students.

Huckabee's plan proposes slashing the number of school districts by two-thirds to about 116 districts. Most elementary and junior high schools would remain in their current locations. Districts with 1,500 or more students would be allowed to remain intact. Approximately 25 or 30 regional districts would include most of the remaining students.

If the governor's proposal is approved then Izard County Consolidated School will probably cease to exist, said ICC Superintendent Fred Walker.

The governor has looked at the numbers but he doesn't realize how rural many of the schools are, Walker said. Walker does not support the governor's plan. "Not at all. I think it's crazy. If you look at test scores in rural schools they are typically better than those of larger schools," Walker said. He said if increased standards are needed then the governor needs to give schools a chance to meet those standards. "We've always tried to meet or exceed standards," Walker added.

Walker said Violet Hill and Oxford consolidated to form ICC in 1985 in order to keep a school in the area. He said patrons voted and passed a millage increase to support the school. "They obviously want a school here," he said.

ICC school and community members have worked hard to have a good school in the area, and the governor's proposal will hurt the surrounding community, he said.

If consolidation is forced upon ICC it could mean that students will no longer be able to attend school in the county they reside in, Walker said. He said typically bus routes are under an hour. But if students have to attend another school it could mean a two-hour bus ride for some. A longer bus ride will result in less family time spent together.

Walker predicts students will be less receptive to learning because they will be tired. "No way will it be good for education," he said.

Walker said the governor needs to look at other factors before finalizing the outline. The governor said consolidation will save on administrative costs, but Walker disagrees with Huckabee. He said regional superintendents will have increased salaries and assistant superintendents will need to be hired. He said Huckabee needs to look at transportation costs, too.

Salem Superintendent Bob Foster said he does not support the governor's proposal on the surface. He said it will create larger high schools that will not be in the best interests of the students.

Foster said the outline eliminates local control over the schools. Foster maintains that local control is very important. What is good for a child in Little Rock might not be good for youth in Salem, Foster explained. He said the public needs input on decisions that will affect their children.

Foster said it's too early to tell what changes will be made until lawmakers rework the governor's outline. He said even though the proposal states it will keep 76 districts and the rest will have to reorganize, officials don't know what that means just yet; it's just an open proposal, Foster added.

Until staffing, facility and curriculum requirements are made clear, Foster said, he is not sure how students will be affected by the consolidation. But one thing is sure, it will probably mean tremendously long bus rides for some of the students, Foster said.

Viola Superintendent Marvin Newton said he cannot predict what is down the road for area schools. He said usually when proposals are finalized the changes are rarely as bad as they first appear.

Newton said if consolidation is approved then it would be logical for Fulton County schools to combine. He said anytime rules are forced upon the general public, friction results. He said when students are forced to attend different schools resentment will occur; when this happens it will take years to get education back to normal.

After listening to Huckabee's announcement Newton said he does not agree with all of the plan. He said the governor didn't address one of the biggest issues -- money.

He said the governor needs to figure out where all the money is going to come from for the changes. Newton does agree, however, with the issue of the increased salaries for teachers.

Newton said he is meeting with officials this week from the State Board of Education to discuss the governor's projections. He added, "I'm in favor of what will help the students."

Mammoth Spring Superintendent Houston Case said not knowing exactly what will be decided from legislators leaves a lot of unanswered questions about how each school will be affected when lawmakers rework the proposals during this legislative session.

Case said it will be a situation where smaller schools will be forced to combine with larger districts unless area schools can figure a way to raise money to provide for legislative requirements. He said if Mammoth Spring is forced to consolidate then some of the students would probably be transferred to Highland and Salem schools. Students that live in far reaching areas will have longer bus rides, Case said.

Case said he understands why the governor came up with the proposal but he said students benefit from smaller schools just as much as students in larger schools. He said he personally knows several students who have graduated from smaller schools who have excelled in their careers.

Case said he hopes everyone works together to provide a solution and a compromise to the proposal.

Included in Huckabee's plan the state Department of Education would hire superintendents and the state would also establish teachers' salaries. The plan is in response to a court order to distribute school funding fairly and to increase the amount of money spent on education.

The education reform proposal was the result of a court ruling by the Arkansas Supreme Court in November on a lawsuit filed by the Lake View School District. The court declared the state has not fulfilled its constitutional duty to provide the children of this state with a general, suitable and efficient school-funding system.

Huckabee's proposal for sweeping reform of the state's system of public schools would empower the director of the state's Department of Education to hire and fire school superintendents. It also allows school principals to hire and fire school staff.

Huckabee began formulating his plan after the Arkansas Supreme Court declared the state school funding formula had not fulfilled its constitutional duty in providing children of the state with a suitable, adequate and efficient school funding system.

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