UPDATE Bills on fiscal distress, charter schools advance


LITTLE ROCK — Bills to give schools and school districts up to five years to get out of fiscal distress and to change the way charter schools are approved cleared the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.

The committee gave a “do pass” recommendation to House Bill 1770 by Rep. Mark Perry, D-Jacksonville, which would change the maximum amount of time that a school or school district can be in fiscal distress, academic distress or facilities distress from two years to five years.

A school or district that does not get out of distress within five years would be consolidated, annexed or reconstituted.

Testifying in support of the bill, state Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell told the committee that two years is not enough time for some districts to fix their problems. Extending the deadline could help school districts avoid being dissolved, he said.

Rich Nagle, executive director of the Arkansas Education Association, testified against the bill. He said that if the state takes over a distressed district, as it can under current law, HB 1770 would allow the district to be out of local control for “far too long.”

Five years of state control “disengages the patrons of the community and the people who have their children in public schools. It disengages them and doesn’t give them much hope or expectation that the schools will be returned to them,” he said.

The bill goes to the House.

The committee also endorsed HB 1528 by Rep. Biviano, R-Searcy, which would create a panel within the state Department of Education to review and decide on charter school applications and renewals. The state Board of Education, which now approves or disapproves charter school applications, would become involved only if a decision of the panel is appealed.

Biviano testified that the Board of Education has many issues to deal with and that having to consider every charter school application takes up a large portion of its time. The Education Department supports the bill.

A bill that Biviano filed earlier, but decided not to run, would have created an independent commission, not under the authority of the Education Department, to approve and regulate charter schools. Biviano said he worked on HB 1528 with state education officials, who had opposed the earlier bill.

The bill goes to the House.