BY LAVINA GRANDON
On Monday, April 9, Rural Community Alliance President Lavina Grandon of Everton, Executive Director Renee Carr of Fox, Lead Organizer Dorothy Singleton of Sherrill, and member Cindy Aikman of Bluffton gave testimony in Little Rock before a joint meeting of the Senate and House Education Committees about an issue that has become increasingly important to rural communities, the fate of abandoned school buildings.
The meeting was chaired by Representative Eddie Cheatham of Crossett, Chair of the House Education Committee. The testimony related to the interim study of a bill introduced but withdrawn by Representative Kelley Linck of Flippin in the 2011 legislative session that would have provided an avenue by which school districts could sell, lease, or donate a vacated school building to achieve another public purpose. The bill was withdrawn when an attorney from the State School Boards Association claimed that it was unconstitutional.
In her Power Point presentation to introduce the testimony, Carr made the point the issue of vacated school buildings is important and becoming more so by the fact that of the 56 school districts that were consolidated by Arkansas’ Act 60 in 2004 more than two-thirds have had campuses closed. As more schools fall below the 350 minimum enrollment, more communities will be affected by having their campuses closed and their buildings left vacant. Rural Community Alliance contends that school buildings that have been abandoned in these consolidations need to be repurposed to meet needs within the communities that paid for and house them.
Some examples of buildings that have been vacated but that school districts are holding on to are found in the former Fourche Valley and Altheimer school districts. Repeated attempts by community members to obtain use of the empty buildings have proved useless.
By contrast, the Paron Community has obtained a long-term, low-cost lease of its former high school from the Bryant School district and has installed a library, meeting rooms, community kitchen, exercise facility, and youth basketball court. The former Norfork school buildings house city offices, a regional food bank, and a non-profit thrift store.
Cindy Aikman testified to the Fourche Valley community’s unsuccessful efforts to obtain the use of their empty K-12 campus. “The buildings are just sitting there locked,” stated Aikman, “and we can’t even open them for people to walk through when we have reunions.” Singleton told of efforts of the Altheimer community to obtain the former Martin High School to house a Museum and Cultural Center. The Dollarway School District, now owner of the building, has not used nor disposed of the buildings in the five years since the Altheimer-Dollarway consolidation. Carr shared that each year more school buildings across Arkansas are vacated, with Bright Star in Miller County one of the most recent added to this unfortunate list.
Legislators listened closely to the presentation and asked numerous questions about possible purposes for such buildings, school boards’ reasons for denying requests for them, and the legalities of disposing of former school buildings.
Representative Donna Hutchinson of Bella Vista stated that she was term limited but that she thought the Legislature should revisit the whole consolidation issue, noting extreme distances some children are forced to travel and the hardships on communities and parents of closing schools. Senator Stephanie Flowers of Pine Bluff concurred, citing five school districts in her Senate district with similar circumstances.
Senator Kim Hendren of Gravette expressed his opinion that the issue of abandoned school buildings is one that the Legislature “needs to fix.” “We created this mess,” when voting for Act 60, he stated, “and we need to fix it.”
Senator Jeremy Hutchinson applauded the arrangement between the Bryant School District and the Paron community and personally vouched for the good that has come from the arrangement, which is in his district.
Ron Harder of the School Boards Association reiterated his concerns that a law that allowed school boards to donate a vacated school building to a community would violate a provision of the state Constitution that prohibits the donating of state property. RCA President Lavina Grandon countered that school property belongs to the school district, not the state, and, therefore, this objection does not apply.
Representative Cheatham then asked if Representative John Catlett, of Rover, whose district includes Fourche Valley, would seek an Attorney General’s opinion on the matter, and Catlett agreed.
With several suggestions from committee members, Representative Linck stated his intention of reworking the bill and bringing it before the Legislature again in 2013.