If you take Ron Crawford’s challenge to ride with him on the route school buses would take between the tiny town of Paron and Bryant High School, you’ll get a taste of what the last few months — and in particular, the last 10 days — have been like for everyone connected with the school. The road twists, turns, reverses itself, heaves, dips, induces nausea in all but the steeliest of stomachs. And it seems like it will never end.
It’s actually two roads — Highway 298 and Steel Bridge Road — and it’s at the heart of the fight over whether the Bryant School District should be allowed to close Paron High and bus its students (111 in grades six-12, although at least half of those have said they plan to transfer to other school districts if Paron High doesn’t open) to Bryant every day.
And Crawford, a Little Rock businessman and grandfather of a Paron High student, known to many as “Coach” because of his decades of involvement with Amateur Athletic Association basketball, is lead bulldog: His money and connections and experience have enabled and empowered Paron residents to fight the planned closure of their school in court. His pep talks, delivered in small towns around the state, have given hope and strategy lessons to others facing the same fate. Asa Hutchinson, Republican candidate for governor, is promising to make protection of isolated schools a priority if he’s elected.
The battle over Paron High captures the anguish felt by many of the parents, students, teachers and communities that support Arkansas’s rural schools, schools that face closing because of the drive to improve education in the state. Its outcome will likely signal whether these tiny, but, more often than not, cherished schools have any chance of remaining open.
“This has gotten way past Paron,” said Bruce Maxwell, Crawford’s son-in-law. “Ron’s got him a very good network now. He’s spoken to folks at Elaine and Altheimer. But unless you’ve got some money to hire an attorney, you’re in bad shape.”
Time is running out
Just what shape Paron’s in now, attorney notwithstanding, is anybody’s guess, and time is running out. School starts Aug. 21, and as of the Arkansas Times press deadline, there was still a slim possibility that Paron High would open its doors that day.
“We figure by the end of [this] week we’ll know one way or the other,” said Ronda Maxwell, Crawford’s daughter, whose 14-year-old daughter, Ashlin Anthony, was a student at Paron High. Maxwell plans to transfer her daughter to Perryville if Paron High doesn’t open.
“Perryville’s aware we’re all still in limbo,” she said.
Paron High’s fate is the result of two state laws passed in the last few years: one that mandated consolidation of all school districts with fewer than 350 students, and another that requires all high schools in the state to teach — not just offer, but teach — a specific minimum set of 38 courses every year.
When Paron annexed to Bryant in the summer of 2004, it was on the verge of being declared in fiscal distress because its fund balance was declining. Bryant got close to $838,000 in extra state funding because of Paron’s “isolated” status, but early this year district officials said that after bringing Paron’s teacher salaries up to Bryant’s — an average increase of $10,000 per teacher — the school was running on a $234,000 yearly deficit, and Bryant couldn’t afford to keep it open. The district had also been on probation both years since the annexation because of failure to meet standards at Paron — the first year because not all 38 courses were taught (no students signed up for instrumental music or physics), and the second because a teacher was teaching a subject she wasn’t certified for. New state requirements that high schools teach a minimum of four Advanced Placement classes every year would have made the situation worse, Bryant Superintendent Richard Abernathy said.
“We can’t meet the minimum standards for the state of Arkansas,” he said. “It’s something that has to be done.”
Not surprisingly, folks in Paron disagreed. After the state Board of Education last spring approved Bryant’s decision to close Paron High — it had to sign off on the closure because the vote of the Bryant School Board wasn’t unanimous — Crawford, his daughter and son-in-law, and several other parents sued the state board and the Department of Education. Their main arguments: The state board hadn’t given them due process because it hadn’t followed the Administrative Procedures Act in conducting the hearing on Paron’s closure, and the lengthy bus ride some Paron students would face — they say the longest would top two hours, while Abernathy said an hour and 45 minutes — violated their constitutional right to an equal opportunity for an adequate education because it would limit their participation in after-school activities and limit their parents’ involvement in their education.
They seemed to have won a major victory in late June, when Pulaski County Circuit Judge Jay Moody granted a temporary restraining order that prohibited Bryant from closing Paron High before the suit worked its way through the court system. Abernathy began scrambling to find replacements for the 17 teachers who’d been let go in the spring (12 took positions in other Bryant schools, but only one of those decided to return to Paron) before school started on Aug. 21.
Meanwhile, the state board and Department of Education appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that Moody didn’t have jurisdiction over the case, and that because the plaintiffs hadn’t included Bryant in their original suit — Moody added the district as a defendant the same day he issued the temporary restraining order — Bryant had been denied its right to due process. The Supreme Court was in recess, however, and the odds of the justices returning early to rule on the appeal were believed to be slim.
But late on Aug. 1, they did just that. And Paron lost. The justices voided the temporary restraining order, agreeing that it wasn’t legal to issue an order that affected Bryant when the district hadn’t been able to present its case in court.
The Paron plaintiffs were back in Moody’s courtroom this week. A hearing was scheduled for Friday on a motion to dismiss the case filed by the Bryant School District, which argues the Paron plaintiffs should have sued in a Saline County court. Paron’s attorney, Chris Heller (who has represented Little Rock schools for years), said there’s no reason Moody wouldn’t issue another temporary restraining order now that Bryant had been added to the suit and would have a chance to argue its case in court.
“We’re just trying to do again what we did the first time,” Heller said.
Bryant school officials, however, are now proceeding with their original plan to close Paron High, said Larry Smith, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. And they’ve petitioned the state board to de-annex Paron and hand it over to the Department of Education to run. So far the board hasn’t responded, and the petition is not on the agenda for the board’s Aug. 14 meeting. No district has ever asked to de-annex a part of itself before, and apparently no state law exists to govern how that might be done.
Bucolic — and isolated
It’s easy to sympathize with the people in Paron. It’s a beautiful area, about half an hour away from West Little Rock down Kanis Road. There’s nowhere within probably 15 to 20 miles to buy anything — not a can of Coke or a gallon of gas — and other than a handful of churches, there’s nothing the community shares other than the school. But it’s peaceful and wooded and still has plenty of elbow room, although it seems inevitable that Little Rock’s westward sprawl will change that in the next few years. For-sale signs line Kanis Road, and water service has recently been extended east from Paron to the Saline/Pulaski county line. Give it a little more time, many in Paron believe, and enough new people will move in that the former Paron district could get back above the 350-student threshold. But close the high school, they fear, and the elementary school won’t be far behind.
The people who live in Paron (population probably a few hundred, although there doesn’t seem to be an accurate count out there) are a combination of families who’ve owned land in the area for generations and more newly arrived refugees from Central Arkansas’s more urban sectors. A few families farm cattle or work in a local construction company, but most commute to jobs in Little Rock, Benton or Bryant.
Bruce and Ronda Maxwell moved to Paron two years ago from Little Rock to raise their daughters, ages 14 and 4, in a rural setting they believe is safer and more supportive than the one they left.
“At that time the school was an issue,” Maxwell said, “but we thought it would be protected because of the isolated school law.” (The 2003 law that mandated consolidation also prohibited the closing of “isolated” schools. The legislature removed that prohibition in 2005.)
Paron High’s graduating classes rarely break 20. Basketball is its main sport, although everyone in the town is passionate about it. High school students have no more than 40 courses to choose from, compared with 160 at Bryant. But, Maxwell said, that’s fine.
“We have the same test scores, so what’s so valuable about those other classes that they need to close down our school?”
The prevailing attitude seems to be that Paron students are doing fine — they generally match state averages on standadized tests, they can get into state colleges if they want, and generally don’t require remediation when they get there — and they don’t need or want the varied curriculum available at larger schools.
“Take AP calculus,” Maxwell said. “We can offer it and have a teacher for it, but nobody takes it, nobody wants it. If they close the school because of it and send all the kids to Bryant, there still won’t be any kids from Paron in AP calculus.”
And any student who does is free to transfer to Bryant or Benton or a Little Rock school, Maxwell said. One young man left Paron High because he wanted to attend West Point and needed classes he couldn’t get at Paron, Maxwell said. Last school year, about 10 students from Paron were attending high schools elsewhere.
But it’s easy to see how a 14-year-old might choose friends over academic opportunities if he couldn’t have both. Maybe more Paron kids would take AP calculus if they didn’t have to change schools to do so. And it can be hard to understand how concerns about a child’s opportunity to play on the school basketball team could figure as strongly into the equation as it does for many Paron parents.
On the other hand, three to four hours a day is a lot of time to sit on a school bus. The parents who filed the lawsuit say it’s too long, that it violates students’ right to an equal educational opportunity.
The problem is, no one has ever established a standard for how long is too long. Many Paron students already ride the bus an hour to school, and students in rural areas statewide have rides that are even longer. The legislature last year ordered the state Department of Education to conduct a study on the issue, but the department only recently started working on it. And previous court cases aren’t consistent; a judge in the Little Rock desegregation case once set a limit of 45 minutes, but that ruling was weighing bus rides against the value of racial balance in individual schools, not whether students had access to more academic opportunities. Another, older case set a limit of two hours. And the Paron plaintiffs cite a report by consultants working for the legislature that pointed to a California education group’s recommendation that bus rides not exceed 30 minutes.
The plight of rural schools
All isolated schools in the state face the same problem: There may not be a sum of money sufficient to lure qualified math and science teachers — in short supply statewide — to make a lengthy commute or commit to living in an isolated area themselves. But neither is it fair for anyone — parents, educators, legislators — to sentence rural students to limited academic opportunities because their families choose to live in the middle of nowhere.
Bruce Maxwell’s ideal solution involves erasing school district boundaries statewide and redrawing them so that they make more sense: Consolidating whole districts has produced situations like Paron’s in which some students live much closer to another district’s schools than to schools in their own district. The Maxwells and a number of other families will send their kids to Perryville if Paron High doesn’t open, because it’s closer than Bryant. Other families have gotten transfers to Jessieville and Fountain Lake schools for the same reason, and the superintendents of all three districts have said they would be willing to send buses into the Paron district to pick students up at designated drop-off locations. But not all families have that option. Some don’t have the resources to get their children to school on their own, or even to a bus pick-up several miles away. If the bus to Bryant is the one that comes by their house, that’s where their kids will go.
State Sen. Shane Broadway, whose district includes part of the Bryant School District, but not Paron, said he thought redrawing district boundaries made sense, but wasn’t practical.
“How you will do that, how you will pass that, will be a monumental task beyond belief.” Splitting up districts’ assets and debt would be a logistical nightmare.
Another possible solution is tweaking the 38-course requirement, although there is significant opposition in the legislature to compromising on that issue, and, Broadway said, it might even run afoul of the Supreme Court’s current stance on whether the state is in compliance with the Lake View decision.
A bill proposed during the special legislative session last spring — Crawford and Heller lobbied for it — would have allowed districts to meet the 38-course standard if they simply taught all 38 classes somewhere in the district, and not necessarily at every campus. Then students who wanted certain classes could be transported for part of the school day from their home campus to another one in the district.
Crawford said the people of Paron would accept whatever decision the court made in the case, and would have accepted the state Board of Education’s decision in April if they’d had a hearing that involved more than giving each side a total of 20 minutes to present its case. But, he said, even a loss in court won’t be the end of it.
“Once you accept you live in a democracy, and you’ve had your day in court, [if you lose], now you have to take it to another level and try to get the rules changed,” he said. He’s been working with other rural education advocacy groups to support legislative candidates friendly to their positions.
Broadway said how prominently isolated-school issues would figure in the 2007 legislative session remained to be seen.
“A lot of it is going to depend on getting some kind of guidance in this Paron case,” he said.
That’s also true of how many other rural schools facing closure will eventually follow Paron’s lead and sue to remain in existence. After Crawford visited with parents in the now-defunct Elaine School District recently, they hired attorney John Walker to represent their interests. And the Searcy County town of Leslie, whose school district was annexed to neighboring Marshall, is considering hiring a lawyer to fight the planned closure of its high school as well.
“Our hopes are on Paron because we think that will set a precedent for other rural schools in the state,” said Tonya Ussery, mother of two Leslie students. “It’s a rollercoaster.”
Everyone involved with the Paron lawsuit says that they realize the time may come when it’s not practical or realistic to keep fighting, but that time isn’t now.
“I’m enormously proud of the community for stepping up,” said Jamie Mullins, whose two children both graduated from Paron. “… This whole school issue is a classroom in itself. This is Democracy 101, and the parents and grandparents are teaching it. Instead of standing around and saying ‘Somebody ought to do something,’ they’re teaching their kids that they’re ‘somebody,’ and they’re responsible for doing something. I’m enormously proud of the community for saying ‘No, that’s not right for us.’ ”