Bill that would give charter schools rights to public school buildings passes in House after vote to reconsider

Rep. Mark Lowery
Rep. Mark Lowery

A bill that would grant Arkansas charter schools the right to buy or lease unused or underutilized public school buildings passed in the House 53-32 Thursday.

Senate Bill 308 failed Wednesday in the House, 50-32. But Rep. Aaron Pilkington (R-Clarksville), who previously voted no, made a motion that the bill be reconsidered Thursday.

"A quality in leadership is being able to admit when you are wrong. I was wrong yesterday when I voted no," Pilkington said, adding that a few members were presenting bills in Senate committees and were not present to vote on Wednesday.

Pilkington joined Rep. Jeff Williams (R-Springdale) and Rep. Lanny Fite (R-Benton) in voting yea on Thursday after voting nay on Wednesday.

Rep. John Walker (D-Little Rock) spoke against the motion to reconsider. "Nothing has changed between yesterday and today. It was a bad bill yesterday and it allowed unnecessary havoc for school districts and it promoted flight from communities in peril where schools were the underpinning of the community. Nothing has changed."

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 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.

Speaking for the motion to reconsider, Rep. Mark Lowery (R-Maumelle), a lead sponsor of the bill along with Sen. Alan Clark (R-Lonsdale), said something had changed: The Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators, which represents school superintendents, was no longer opposed to the bill.

"I know that you may have heard from individual superintendents, but the association as a whole is not against the bill," Lowery said.

Richard Abernathy, executive director of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators, testified against the bill in committee. In the House Education committee on Monday he said what happens to public school facilities should be a local decision.

In a phone interview after the vote was cast Thursday, Abernathy confirmed that the AAEA was no longer taking a position on the bill. He said the organization made the decision to change its position Wednesday evening.

Abernathy said the AAEA has worked with Sen. Alan Clark (R-Lonsdale) "on many subjects in many areas," and they spent a lot of time together working on SB 308.

"It’s hard to work with somebody and then turn around and oppose something they are very adamant about," Abernathy said. "I think at the end of the day he felt stronger about passing the legislation then we did about beating the legislation. We work with him on so many other things, we’ll stand down because he was so passionate about the legislation."

Governor Hutchinson is expected to sign the legislation into law.

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

The Arkansas Nonprofit News Network is an independent, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans. Our work is re-published by partner newsrooms across the state.