UPDATE House rejects bill to halt enrollment-based school mergers


LITTLE ROCK — Legislation to impose a two-year moratorium on school mergers based on enrollment failed Wednesday in the state House, while the Senate was briefed but took no action on a measure that would grant in-state college tuition for undocumented students.

A day after receiving a House committee’s endorsement despite objections by the state attorney general and education commissioner, House Bill 1938 failed before the full House by a vote of 46-26. The bill needed 51 votes to pass.

The bill by Rep. Randy Alexander, R-Fayetteville, would bar the state Board of Education from approving school mergers through April 30, 2015, for reasons other than academic or fiscal distress, or for failure to comply with state accreditation standards. It would give the House and Senate education committees the option to extend the moratorium through Dec. 31, 2016.

The legislation would mandate a study in the interim of administrative reorganizations — consolidations and annexations — and student transportation in selected school districts.

Currently, school districts that fall below 350 students for two consecutive years are subject to consolidation or annexation with other districts.

Presenting the bill on the House floor, Alexander said the current law forced the Weiner School District to consolidate with the Harrisburg district in 2010 even though Weiner had a strong academic record and had never been in fiscal distress.

“The only thing that they had failed to do was to keep 350 students,” he said.

Rep. Hank Wilkins, D-Pine Bluff, noted that the current law, which he helped to negotiate, was part of the state’s efforts to resolve the Lake View school funding lawsuit and comply with a state Supreme Court mandate to achieve adequacy in funding public schools.

He said that as a district’s student population declines it eventually reaches a point where it cannot be fiscally sound, and he asked Alexander what would be a better place to draw the line than at 350 students.

Alexander replied, “What’s important to me is the outcome: Is the school teaching kids?”

Rep. Skip Carnine, R-Rogers, a retired educator, spoke against the bill. He said the Legislature is under a state Supreme Court order not to change any part of the education reforms it enacted in the Lake View case unless the changes are based on evidence and research. No research has been done to justify the moratorium called for in HB 1938, he said.

In the Senate Wednesday, Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, presented Senate Bill 915, which would make anyone who attends high school in Arkansas for at least three years and graduates or receives a general education diploma eligible to pay the in-state tuition rate at a state higher education institution.

During a discussion open to officials other than senators, Randy Zook, president of the Arkansas Chamber of Commerce-Associated Industries of Arkansas, announced that the state’s largest business lobbying organization supported the bill. University of Arkansas at Little Rock Chancellor Joel Anderson also urged the Senate to support the measure.

“We need additional people to not only stay in Arkansas and be an active participant in the work force, but also to get as much education and as much training … as they possibly can in order to be fully contributing, viable members of society,” Zook said, noting that about about 500 people in Arkansas retire every day and many companies are finding it difficult to find educated and skilled employees.

Maricella Garcia, director of Catholic Immigration Services in Little Rock, said 14 states have passed similar legislation. The Oregon governor signed that state’s law Tuesday and a bill awaits the governor’s signature in Colorado, she said.

“This is not a new … idea, just an idea whose time has come,” Garcia said.

Rosa Velazquez, 29, who was five when her undocumented parents moved to Arkansas from Mexico, also advocated for the bill and told reporters later she is working towards a degree at Cossatot Community College, but it is taking time because she is having to pay out-of-state tuition, which is about $100 more per credit hour.

Elliott said SB 915 was not about immigration, but about education.

“Education and economic development are crucial to our state going forward,” she said.

The bill is pending before the Senate Education Committee.

The Senate passed several bills Wednesday, including:

—SB 1010 by Rep. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, which would require anyone selling a used mattress to inform the purchaser that it is used. Under the bill, violation of the law would be a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. It passed 24-4 and goes to the House.

—HB 2087 by Rep. Mary Broadaway, D-Paragould, which would allow some cities to pass an ordinance allowing on-premises alcohol consumption without need for an election. The bill would only apply to wet communities in which at least 100 permits allowing on-premises consumption of alcohol are active. Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravett, said the bill would only apply to Benton County. It passed 30-3 and goes to the governor.

—HB 405 by Rep. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, which would prohibit smoking in and on the grounds of all medical facilities. It passed 26-3 and goes to the governor.

The House voted 72-0 to approve HB 2057 by Rep. Mark Perry, D-Jacksonville, which would make a shooting range immune from civil liability, criminal prosecution, nuisance actions or court injunctions for noise pollution if it is in a commercially zoned area and is being operated for its intended purpose between the hours of 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. The bill goes to the Senate.

Two bills by Rep. Hank Wilkins proposing special license plates were considered in the House on Wednesday, one of which was approved and the other rejected.

The House voted 71-3 to approve and send to the Senate HB 1879, which would create a Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. license plate. The body rejected HB 1880, a Hispanic Americans license plate, in a 20-32 vote.

Rep. Micah Neal, R-Springdale, spoke against HB 1880, saying he did not want to start down the road of issuing special license plates for ethnic groups.

“In Springdale alone, I want to say there’s like 90-something different ethnic groups,” he said. “Do we really want to do a couple hundred license plates for different countries that we’re from?”