by Max Brantley
Judge Jay Moody has indicated he'll temporarily block the closure of Paron High School pending a trial on the merits of forcing the state to keep the high schol open. The district has merged with Bryant and Bryant has said it can't afford to keep the high school open and meet state standards at the 125-student school. He's issued no order, but notified attorneys a letter that you can read on the jump.
To issue a restraining order, the judge had to decide there was a chance those fighting the closure could prevail on their argument that closure would put an undue busing burden on students.
We're surprised frankly. If this becomes law, others should resume fights to preserve inefficient high schools with inadequate course offerings in the name of student convenience.
UPDATE: After some phone calls, these additional thoughts.
* It's almost a certainty Paron High School will be open next school year. There's not time for the state to adequately consider the busing issue in time to arrive at standards and put them in place before the next school year.
* The state's failure to follow the administrative procedures act -- that is, to give Paron supporters a chance to develop full testimony and cross-examination before the state Board of Education -- was critical to the plaintiffs' success. State law includes transportation as an issue to be considered in the education adequacy formula and it recognizes that isolated schools are more expensive to support. That doesn't mean that isolation trumps all, but it means that distance factors must be considered.
* This case has deep ramifications elsewhere. Other districts are now certain to fight mergers by raising busing. Absent specific standards from the state, the fights will be winnable in the interim if this case is a precedent. In the Delta, Elaine school supporters fiercely fought consolidation on account of longer bus rides, for example.
* The legislature will have to fight this next year. At what point do efficiency and adequacy trump a bus ride or district consolidation? One solution would be to give the state board more power to merge districts and redraw boundaries into more efficient units. In Paron, the solution would have been to divide the territory with several neighboring districts, rather than put it all with Bryant. That would have shortened all bus rides and lessened burdens on all concerned. But it's not doable under the current law.
Letter from Judge Jay Moody to Chris Hellere, attorney for Paron plaintiffs, and Scott Smith, attorney for the state Education Department:
Perhaps I was unrealistic in my expectations following last Friday's hearing and therefore I am going to simply rule on the motions before me.
As to the joinder of the Bryant School District, I order that they be made a separate defendant to this action. Plaintiffs will have ten days to amend their complaint to join the Bryant School District.
As for the request for a temporary restraining order, I find that the plaintiffs have shown that irreparable harm will be done to the plaintiffs if the Paron School is closed prior to a full and fair hearing on the remaining counts of the plaintiff's complaint. The court further finds that the plaintiffs have shown a reasonable likelihoo of success on the merits of the case.
Therefore, the court is granting the plaintiffs request for a temporary restraining order prohibiting the Arkansas Board of Education from authorizing the Bryant School District to close the Paron School. The request for a permanent restraining ordre is denied at this time. Defendants are ordered to to take no action consistent with the closing of Paron School pending further order from this court.
Mr. Heller please prepare an order for the court.
Jay Moody Circuit Judge