Ed board rejects school transfer appeals


LITTLE ROCK — The state Board of Education on Monday rejected the appeals of several families of students of an eastern Arkansas school district whose applications for transfers were denied under Arkansas’ new school choice law.

The board also validated a petition from residents in Jacksonville seeking state permission to form a new school district by detaching from the Pulaski County Special School District.

The families of students in the Forrest City School District appealed denial of the students’ applications to transfer to the Palestine-Wheatley School District, which opted out of Arkansas’ new school choice law adopted this year.

A lawyer for one of the families, George Rozzell, argued before the state board that the transfers should have been granted because the Palestine-Wheatley district’s exemption from the new law was invalid based on the date the district declared it was opting out. The declaration came in May while the law set an April 1 deadline.

The board voted to deny the appeals.

“It’s not our job to parse the law and decide who is exempt and who isn’t,” board member Vicki Saviers of Little Rock said.

The only board member to vote approve the transfers was Diane Zook of Melbourne, who was attending her first board meeting as a member.

The Legislature this year approved a measure that became Act 1227. The new law replaced the 1989 Public School School Choice Act that a federal judge in Little Rock struck down last year because it contained a race restriction on student transfers, which the judge said violated the 14th Amendment guarantee of equal protection under the law. The decision has been appealed to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis.

Act 1227 removes the race restriction but allows districts under desegregation orders to opt out out of the new law. Palestine-Wheatley was among 22 school districts that notified the state Department of Education of plans to do so.

The deadline to opt out is among the disputes in a federal lawsuit filed by the families of students in the Blytheville School District whose transfer requests for next school year were denied.

The plaintiffs contend that because the law was signed into law in mid-April by the governor, the April 1 deadline in the law for school districts to opt out of its provisions does not take effect until 2014, so the Blytheville district has no authority to prevent the transfer requests this fall.

The district maintains that the state Department of Education gave districts until May 17 to declare their intentions for the 2013-2014 school year, and that the district met the law’s opt-out requirement.

After a hearing, U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker last week denied a request to allow students to transfer out of the Blytheville district while the lawsuit is pending. Baker said the parents did not prove their children would be irreparably harmed if they were denied transfers.

Rozzell said Monday it would be up to the Forrest City group — the parents of both black students and white students — to decide their next move.

The petition to advance a movement toward a separate Jacksonville School District needed 1,808 signatures for validation, or 10 percent of the registered voters in the area of the proposed detachment. The board declared that the petition containing 2,079 signatures was valid.

The group still faces more hurdles.

The Department of Education has to request an opinion from the state attorney general’s office as to whether creating a new school district would negatively affect desegregation in the Pulaski County Special district. Also, the federal judge presiding over the long-running Pulaski County school desegregation case would have to determine whether the proposed district would violate the 1989 desegregation settlement to which the Pulaski County district is a party.

Finally, residents in the affected area would have to vote on whether to approve a new district.

The Pulaski County Special School District has been in fiscal distress since May 2011 and has been under state control since June 2011. The Board of Education voted in May to continue fiscal-distress status for the district after state Department of Education officials reported that some of the issues that led to that classification have not been resolved, though they said the district has made progress under the leadership of state-appointed Superintendent Jerry Guess.