by Max Brantley
Rep. Randy Alexander's bill to impose a two-year moratorium on consolidation of school districts that fail to have 350-student enrollment for two years failed in the House today. Needing 51 votes, it got 46, with 26 nays and 1 voting present. A motion to clinch the vote failed, so it could come up again.
Republican Rep. Les Carnine spoke at length against the bill, saying it could open "Pandora's box" relative to the Supreme Court's ruling in the Lakeview case. Carnine, a former school superintendent, said the legislature was bound to first study what constituted adequacy. But he said it put the cart before the horse to set aside enrollment and then study. Rep. John Burris, whose own high school was recommended for consolidation 10 years ago, said it was an appropriate time to look at the results of the Lakeview legislationi regarding size.
There were many references to the Weiner school district, now consolidated with Harrisburg after a lengthy fight. It had good student scores. Carnine noted that that decision was over. The district has been consolidated and the resulting school district is now moving to close the Weiner high school on economic grounds. To declare a moratorium could open to court challenge all past decisions on consolidation based on enrollment.
Carnine made a point that most legislators don't often realize. When studies talk about the value of small school districts, they use a definition that already covers most Arkansas school districts, 1,000 or so students and smaller. The 350-student limit was a compromise of legislation that began at 1,500 students, it was noted. Adequacy, of course, isn't merely a question of scores on reading and math. It also concerns the richness of course offerings and extracurricular information.