A bill that would grant Arkansas charter schools the right to use “unused or underutilized” public school buildings advanced out of the House Education Committee late Monday afternoon on a voice vote with some dissent, drawing criticism from some opponents of the bill who cried foul at the unusual timing of the committee's action. It has already passed in the full Senate.
Charter schools already have right of first refusal under previous legislation, but only if a district sells a public school building. Senate Bill 308 would add the requirement that school districts submit a yearly report to the state that identifies all unused or underutilized public school facilities. A charter school could then give notice of its intent to purchase or lease the unused or underutilized school facility, and preference would go to the charter school.
The bill also states that a district cannot sell or lease a public school property to a third party that is not a charter school for two years after the facility is listed as unused or underutilized by the state Division of Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation.
If a school district fails to comply, it could be classified in academic facilities distress and subject to state takeover.
“We're trying to allow those buildings to be repurposed — or not really repurposed, the purpose is going to be education,” House sponsor Rep. Mark Lowery (D-Maumelle) said. He said it would “breathe life back into those facilities.”
In his presentation of the bill, Lowery attempted to allay concerns about the bill. "It's been out there that this is about the Little Rock School District. This is about the four schools that have been closed down and to try to allow charter schools to do a grab on those schools, and that's absolutely not the case." The Little Rock School District plans to close or repurpose several campuses at the end of the 2016-17 school year, which LRSD Superintendent Michael Poore has said is a necessary cost-saving measure.
Richard Abernathy, executive director of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators, which represents school superintendents, testified against the bill. He said what happens to public school facilities should be a local decision. He also said "underutilized" is not well defined in the bill, a concern Democratic senators voiced when the bill ran in Senate Education Committee in February.
At that hearing, Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) raised the issue of what “underutilized” means. "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 was referring to Franklin Incentive Elementary School, one of the LRSD schools that Superintendent Poore has slated for closure at the end of the current school year.
At the House Education Committee on Monday, both Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola and Poore testified against the bill.
"We're crafting legislation right now that's yanking out local control," Poore said. "Most of you know, we just closed facilities. My job right now is create a repurpose for those facilities and to work with my community to come up with a repurpose that will be good for our overall community."
Poore said a good example of what a community can do with a closed school building is the Willie Hinton Neighborhood Resource Center in Little Rock.
Lowery, in his closing remarks, said that if a district is able to find a community group that wants to continue an educational pursuit in a school building, then the district doesn't have to report the building as unused or underutilized.
Poore also said he objected to a provision in the bill that states how the terms of the lease would be determined.
"The lease length gets determined by the charter, so again we are usurping local control. The charter school dictates the agreement, not the local school district," he said.
Stodola expressed concerns that the bill would lead to more vacant buildings because of the provision that districts must not dispose of a building for two years after it has been identified as underutilized or unused.
"It's of great concern to a community, to a neighborhood," Stodola said. "Many of these schools are in fragile neighborhoods. There's been declining enrollment, which is why the schools are being closed to begin with, and the last thing that I need in the neighborhood around UALR and around Stifft Station is to have schools that are closed and to strap the arms of the school district to be able to dispose of those to people who want to use those."
The bill was presented at the end of the day in a special meeting of the committee, which usually convenes Tuesday and Thursday morning. Several people opposed to the bill expressed dismay about the surprise hearing and said they had to rush to the Capitol.
Bill Kopsky, executive director of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, speaking against the bill, said he was told the bill would not run until next week.
"I know you have people signed up to speak ... against it. Those are my friends, my allies. Those are also institutional people whose job it is to be here. Those are not the grassroots parents around the state, from rural communities, who are deeply concerned about this bill, who are being denied their opportunity to voice their concerns about it because of the timing of when this bill is being run. It's unfair. It's just blatantly wrong," Kopsky told the committee.
Committee chair Rep. Bruce Cozart (R-Hot Springs) responded. "I will tell you that if they came and all signed up they would get limited debate and they would not get to speak anyway," he told Kopsky. A short back-and-forth exchange between the two exemplified the frustration expressed by opponents of the bill. Kopsky told Cozart, "Well, sir, they wanted to be here to watch you all do your work and express their concerns about this piece of legislation." Cozart replied, "We are on TV. They can watch there." The House streams and archives committee meetings on its website, arkansashouse.org.
"I appreciate that. They cannot speak to the TV, although I am sure they are shouting right now," Kopsky said.
Questions and testimony lasted more than an hour and a half. Rep. Dan Sullivan (R-Jonesboro) expressed concern about the precedent the bill might set.
"I think it’s a laudable goal, but my concern is we are setting up a preferred buyer ... in this educational setting that we wouldn’t do in any other — we wouldn't do this with public buildings and allow only grocers to buy public buildings. We’re setting up a standard that I don't know that we want to go into," Sullivan said.
But Lowery said the bill was “protecting the rights of those taxpayers who paid for that building to be used for education and not to be used as a grocery store or warehouse."
Helena facility fight inspired legislation
According to Lowery and Sen. Alan Clark (R-Lonsdale), the lead Senate sponsor, the impetus for the bill was a situation that unfolded after the state Board of Education declared the Helena-West Helena School District in financial distress in 2010. Almost a year later, then-Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell dissolved the school board and put the district under state control. In 2012, the district closed three schools, including Beechcrest Elementary, citing declining enrollment and financial difficulty.
Scott Shirey, founder and executive director of KIPP Delta Public Schools, a charter school operator in Helena-West Helena, spoke in favor of the bill. He said at the time Beechcrest was closed, "students at our school attended school in modular trailers ... there were no science labs in there, no cafeteria, no library and on rainy days it was nearly an impossible campus."
KIPP Delta wanted to purchase Beechcrest, but the school district, under state control, would not immediately sell the building. Under current law, charter schools have first right of refusal only if a district sells the building.
"Meanwhile, that entire time period where our students had inadequate access to facilities, a functional school building, Beechcrest Elementary, sat vacant as current law prevented us from using those unused district facilities," Shirey said.
He said Beechcrest was vandalized as it sat empty. During Shirey's testimony, pictures of the school were passed around for the committee to see.
Shirey, when asked in an interview why the building sat empty, said, "My sense of it was the state was trying to manage the local politics and not wanting to upset the local school district."
In an email, Kimberly Friedman, director of communications for the state Department of Education, wrote, "Due to numerous issues, including leadership transitions, vandalism and a lawsuit, the sale of the building was delayed."
Tony Wood, who was appointed state education commissioner in 2014, initiated the sale of the building to KIPP Delta, according to Friedman.
Normally, a locally elected school board would make decisions about a district's facilities, but when a district is taken over by the state Education Department, the school board is dissolved. The state education commissioner acts in the capacity of a local school board in such districts. The commissioner may appoint a community advisory board to solicit input from the community, which is what happened in the case of Helena-West Helena, but that board has no actual authority. Andrew Bagley was the president of the district's community advisory board.
"During the period of local control prior to the state forcing the transfer of that property to KIPP Delta ... the [local school] board made the judgment that it was not in the best interest of our students or our school district to let a property get in the hands of a competitor that was taking hundreds of students from our school," Bagley said in an interview.
"Our advisory board — before any decision was made — wanted to complete our long-term facilities plan, and we wanted to get the properties appraised so that we would know how much money we should try to get if we chose to sell," Bagley said. "The state would not let us do either one of those things and by the state I mean Commissioner Tony Wood."
Wood, now the superintendent for Jacksonville North Pulaski School District, said in an interview that he didn't remember having a conversation with the advisory board about an appraisal. "There very likely could have been some discussion with someone on the advisory committee wanting to ... bring a firm in, a real estate firm or somebody to do an appraisal. I don't remember.
"There could have been fair market value established perhaps in some manner other than the quote," Wood said.
Shirey testified on Monday that KIPP Delta submitted a $50,000 sealed bid for the school building, which was accepted. The decision was upheld in court.
In March 2016, Helena-West Helena regained local control of its school district after the state Board of Education voted to remove it from state control. Andrew Bagley is now president of the Helena-West Helena School Board.
"What the state essentially did was force the equivalent of McDonald's being forced to give a facility to Wendy's," Bagley said.
Scott Smith, executive director of the Arkansas Public School Resource Center, an organization that advocates for charter schools, assisted Lowery in presenting the bill and testified on behalf of it. Rep. Charlotte Douglas (R-Alma), vice-chair of the committee, asked Smith, "Is there any concern over who you get to appraise the building and how you would appeal? ... When you say fair market value, you know that could mean one thing from one appraiser and one thing from another."
Smith answered that the district and charter would either mutually agree to an appraiser, or the state Division of Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation would set the terms as a neutral third party.
Lowery said traditional public schools and charter schools are partners in the educational process. "Charter schools are public schools and the shame of it is, this whole battle over facilities and students and all these things have created this oppositional warfare that shouldn't exist."
The bill now goes to the full House.
This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans.