Columns » Max Brantley

School consolidation

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Rep. Linda Chesterfield's husband may be a Pulaski County School District bus driver. And the district's shabby treatment of drivers may have been the catalyist for her bill to merge the district with the Little Rock and North Little Rock districts, creating two school districts in the county, one on either side of the Arkansas River. But the bill is much more than Chesterfield's revenge. It has broad support. As we went to press, Sen. Tracy Steele of North Little Rock was considering sponsoring the measure in the Senate. Sen. Jim Argue of Little Rock reportedly favored, at the least, full hearings. Jacksonville legislators would still prefer to have their own school district, but this bill could actually help them. The Pulaski County School District successfully fought Jacksonville's secession in federal court. If it is legislated out of existence, it couldn't oppose a future Jacksonville secession request. Officials who have worked on the long-running desegregation case reportedly have told lawmakers they see no desegregation-related obstacles to the two-district legislation. If anything, it would alleviate some racial issues on both sides of the river. The two-district remedy has been a favorite of many in the education and business community for years, particularly in North Little Rock. The merger would offer a solution to North Little Rock's declining population and growing percentage of minority students. Little Rock should like the bill, big-time. For one thing, it would put expanding western Little Rock into the district. That artificial limitation of the district, right at the city's fastest growing and youngest area has been a huge impediment to rational school-siting decisions. I have not yet heard from the western reaches of the city. Booming Chenal Valley, full of people who made home-purchase decisions with school districts in mind, could be presumed to be a source of some opposition. But with racially-oriented school assignment plans and mandated busing a thing of the past in Little Rock, the merged district would like dislocate very few of those people. Rural legislators like the bill because it gives some big city folks a taste of forced consolidation. They also owe Chesterfield a favor. She joined them, against all reason, in the opposition to consolidation of tiny school districts. (There's a suspicion she was repaying a professional favor from a small school superintendent, just by the way.) But, in the Senate, the bill must stand or fall on its own merits. Chesterfield won't be an issue. The bill makes sense in many ways. The Pulaski district is a relic, an overgrown rural school district that forms a doughnut around Pulaski County's major cities. It stretches from beyond Jacksonville to Wrightsville and out to Scott in a form that is exceedingly difficult to manage in terms of school assignment and transportation. The north side has a cohesive community of interest, stretching from North Little Rock through Sherwood and Sylvan Hills. The same is true on the south side for the sprawling city of Little Rock. Personal motivations aside, this is a bill worth serious consideration.

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