Bill that would give charter schools rights to public school buildings fails in House

Rep. Mark Lowery (R-Maumelle)

A bill that would grant Arkansas charter schools the right to buy or lease unused or underutilized public school buildings failed in the House in a 50-32 vote Wednesday. Had it passed, it would have been sent to Governor Hutchinson to be signed into law.

The bill appeared headed for passage, 51-32, on initial roll call. But a motion to sound the ballot, where the name of each representative is called to insure all the voters were in their seats, found one of the aye votes missing.

Rep. Mark Lowery (R-Maumelle), a sponsor of the bill, argued for continuity in school facilities.

"If the school districts have invested the money of their district, of their constituents, for education, in building that building, then that building should be maintained for the purpose of education whether it is through a community organization or allowing a charter school to come in there," he said.

Charter schools already have right of first refusal under previous legislation, but only if a district elects to sell. 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 failed to comply, it could be classified as being in academic facilities distress and subject to state takeover.

Lowery said the bill was needed because school districts have tried to skirt around the current charter school right of first refusal law by not selling an unused building and instead letting it lay waste. He said the bill is not an attempt to "grab" buildings in Little Rock. The Little Rock School District plans to close or repurpose several campuses at the end of the 2016-17 school year. LRSD Superintendent Michael Poore has said the closures are a necessary cost-saving measure.

Rep. Charles Blake (D-Little Rock), speaking against the bill, said the SB 308 would be "handcuffing our districts and making them bend to our will, that's what we're doing."

Blake said he speaks from experience, having cofounded a charter school, the Little Rock Preparatory Academy. He expressed concern over what happens when a school district is under state control, as the Little Rock School District currently is.

Normally, a locally elected school board would make decisions about a district's facilities, but when a district is taken over by the state Board of Education, the school board is dissolved. The state education commissioner acts in the capacity of a local school board in such districts.

Blake said, "We don't have a school board. Our school board is the Director of Education, Johnny Key. So what this bill is saying is any building in our school district, if it is decided to be underutilized, can be, should be, has to be sold to a charter school if a charter school wants it."

SB 308 will likely come before the House again. Each bill can be considered twice. A simple majority vote allows reconsideration of a bill.

This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans.

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