A bill that would grant Arkansas charter schools the right to use public school facilities that are unused or underutilized advanced out of the Senate Education committee Wednesday on a voice vote with some dissent.
"It’s to prevent empty buildings from sitting and falling down while we’re not using them. It’s as simple as that," Sen. Alan Clark (R-Lonsdale), lead sponsor of the bill, said in an interview. "It allows charter schools to access those buildings if they have a need and if the building’s not being used."
Senate Bill 308 also gives charter schools the right of first refusal to purchase or lease a public school facility at fair market value.
Democratic lawmakers voiced several concerns.
"We keep talking about local control, but this is taking away local control," Sen. Linda Chesterfield (D-Little Rock) said.
Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) questioned the definition of "underutilized."
"Right in my neighborhood two blocks from me, a school is going to be closed because it is underutilized, and I can't come up with a definition of what underutilized means except that it seems to mean what anybody wants it to mean," Elliott said. Elliott was referring to Franklin Incentive Elementary, a campus in the Little Rock School District slated for closure at the end of the current school year.
Scott Smith, executive director of the Arkansas Public School Resource Center, an organization that advocates for charter schools, answered lawmakers' questions about the bill.
"As long as the district is using or has a plan to use the facility for an educational, academic, extracurricular or administrative purpose ... then it doesn't qualify as underutilized," Smith said. "I think that definition is very broad and protective on behalf of schools."
Clark said the impetus for the bill was a situation that unfolded in Helena-West Helena, where a charter school was not initially permitted to buy a vacant elementary school, which fell into disrepair. Scott Shirey, founder and executive director of KIPP Delta charter schools, spoke in favor of the bill. During his testimony, pictures of the school, Beechcrest Elementary, were passed around for the committee to see.
"Our students were stuck in modular trailers while a building ... was really destroyed," Shirey said. Clark said the building was "murdered" and "tortured" because it was left to rot, during which time it was vandalized and suffered termite damage.
At the time, the Helena-West Helena School District was under state control due to fiscal distress. The advisory school board objected to the sale of Beechcrest to KIPP Delta and a lawsuit was filed by a Helena-West Helena resident who was trying to block the sale. The $50,000 sale was approved by Tony Wood, the Education commissioner at the time who was acting as the school board in receivership. The decision was upheld in court.
The bill also says that if a school district fails to comply, it can be classified in academic facilities distress. Smith said, "The purpose is to give [the state] the authority to actually transfer the property."
Chesterfield objected, "The purpose is to be heavy-handed and to make sure that it happens."
Nell Mathews, a board member of Little Rock Volunteers in Public Schools and a member of the Stand Up for Little Rock schools coalition, spoke against the bill.
"SB 308 allows state bureaucrats to dictate transfer of real property from local taxpayers to a private corporation. By this logic under the guise of community development, would you be able to deem an empty Walmart as underutilized and force the sale to Kroger, or Harps? What about a farmer that chooses not to plant one of his fields of rice, does another farmer get to come in and take over that land? ... You can see the ridiculousness of this sort of forcing the transfer of real property," Matthews said.
In the Little Rock School District, at the end of the 2016-17 school year, school closures will leave behind vacant buildings to which this law would apply. Earlier this month, state Education Commissioner Johnny Key approved the closure of Franklin Elementary, Wilson Elementary School and Woodruff Early Childhood Center. In addition, Hamilton Learning Academy is to be moved into the Wilson Elementary building. The schools are being closed due to declining enrollment and budget cuts resulting from the impending loss of $37 million in desegregation funding.
In an interview, Elliott expressed concern about how SB 308 will affect Little Rock.
"If we are going to close that school because we don’t have enough students, according to [Superintendent Michael] Poore and Johnny Key, then why are we going to have another school there? ... [Charters] can have whatever enrollment they want, basically. It's not an even playing field," Elliott said.
Clark said after the bill had passed, "This is not designed to take a building from anybody."
The bill now goes to the full Senate.