The 2016 Rural Community Alliance member conference took place in Paron, Arkansas, on July 15 and 16. About 125 people attended from more than 25 different communities across the state.
The event started with a Policy Council meeting on Friday afternoon. Members discussed issues of importance in the areas of education, community and economic development, youth development, and quality of life in small rural communities.
Ideas suggested to the policy council included:
- Increasing small business
- More stipends for volunteers
- Better access to food
- Language exchange centers where bilingual people can help non-English speakers learn to speak English, and English speakers can learn another language
- Youth development councils to focus on their needs and how they can help grow their town
- Revitalizing “brownfields” with support from state funding
- Full service community resource centers
- “Small Business Saturday” to show off small businesses
- Revive the history of the town/area by starting a small museum
- Better internet services for on-line education and for business development
- Structural and cultural competency trainings to expose educators and policy makers to rural culture and values
- Develop local, county, regional, and state-wide agritourism program
- Small business incubators
- Activate churches in community development
- Local access to skills training, job training, adult education
- Single family and multi-family housing
- More cooperative ventures to meet community needs like food service and entertainment
- Most communities need health, dental, mental health services—School-based health centers
- Festivals and celebrations of town’s history
- Youth activities and safe places to interact
- What to do with abandoned school buildings? Paron and Delight are renting out part to small businesses to fund and maintain community spaces and activities
- Must keep post offices open
- Develop local tourism: Day trips, quilt trails, bicycle and ATV trails, disc golf courses, historical attractions
- Seniors Teaching Seniors: Senior citizens go into schools to teach seniors in high school the technology of their generation in exchange for learning the technology of the younger generation (good way of breaking down barriers between school and community, youth and older generation)
- End Act 60 altogether
- Stop State Board of Education from disbanding school boards
- Too much danger of State Board from irrevocably altering the school without local input
- Too many schools hiring duplicative administrator positions (dean of students, curriculum specialist, federal programs coordinator, literacy coach, math coach, etc.) and cutting funding for positions (teacher and instructional support personnel) that directly impact students
- Kids on school buses too long
- State Board of Education’s preferential treatment of charter schools
- Training programs, GED, and adult ed need to be locally accessible
Eventually, members settled on four economic development issues and five education issues, which were then ranked (by the entire conference voting) in the following order.
- Funding for community and business development in small rural places.
- Create a state-wide economic development plan that includes small rural communities.
- Support for developing local tourism attractions.
- Small business incubators that are accessible to rural residents.
- Limit school bus transportation times with funding to help schools make it happen.
- Change the law so that a legally elected school board CANNOT BE DISMISSED by the appointed State Board of Education.
- Reduce the amount school districts spend on administrative positions and increase teachers and classroom support personnel.
- Put highly qualified teachers in every classroom and increase incentives for them to stay, especially in hard to staff schools. Equalize teacher pay.
- Provide local, ACCESSIBLE, opportunities for adult education, job training, skills training, etc.
The group also identified three FEDERAL ISSUES that need to be addressed:
- Require post offices to display local postal job openings at local post offices.
- Make single family and multi-family housing more available.
- Revamp the VISTA process to make it easier for small nonprofit and small-town.
The conference re-convened on Saturday morning with welcomes by RCA Executive Director Candace Williams, J.P. District 13 James Zahnd, and Governor Asa Hutchinson (video).
Everyone had fun with the fast-paced Community Shout-Out Poster Contest, which was won by Western Grove, Stephens, Dermott, and Lafayette County (Lewisville).
Youth contributions were a youth essay contest, a youth panel discussion, and a Power Point presentation by Olivia McClure entitled: The Importance of Youth in Community.
The topic of the essay contest was “Why is your rural school important to you?” The first place winners from each division were: 7th-12th Lily Webb (Perryville High), 4th-6th Emma Roubique (Timbo Elementary), and 1st-3rd Elijah Stanton (Eudora Elementary).
Jerri Derlikowski and Maria Jones of Community Resource Innovations presented information on Community Schools as school transformation models and gave information about the joint project between RCA and CR Innovations to help three at-risk school districts create strategic plans to become community schools.
RCA President Lavina Grandon talked about privatization challenges to traditional public schools, including tax-payer funded vouchers, corporate-run charter schools, and encroachment of the State Board of Education on local control.
Penny Harris, Dale Taylor, Alenora Williams, and Tanya Broadnax led the entire group in a challenge to Step Up for Public Schools, including walking a mile for public schools in their own communities on October 22. Fifteen communities committed on the spot to holding Step-Up walks.
The topic then turned to Rural Economic Development. Candy Webb and Jamie Mullins talked about the emerging work in Central Arkansas, and local businessman Paul Buch explained the new small business that his family is operating out of part of the former Paron school building. Renee Carr, RCA’s Chief Financial Officer and former executive director, discussed the regional networks that are developing in North Central, Southwest, and Southeast Arkansas. North Central Director Matt Grandon gave a Power Point presentation on “Ways to Promote Your Rural Community.”
Lunch (as well as the other conference meals) was provided by the local Paron RCA chapter, sourcing local labor and food. While eating, the participants mingled freely, shared ideas and experiences, and voted on legislative issues.
After lunch, Representative Mary Bentley, Representative Fred Love, Mayor Patricia Glover, Mayor Harry Brown, Mayor Talitha Hardin, and J.P. James Zahnd made up a panel that discussed “Education, Economic Development, and Quality of Life in Rural Arkansas.”