Arkansas suit forces school consolidation

Tuesday, July 6, 2004

Jimmy Cunningham's rural Arkansas school district was simply too small to exist.

Plainview-Rover School District, where Cunningham served as superintendent, and 56 other Arkansas districts died Thursday following a funding lawsuit that prompted the state legislature to consolidate all districts of 350 students or fewer.

"It's caused chaos here," Cunningham said. "We fought 18 months trying to prevent this. It's disenfranchising communities."

With the plight of their southern neighbors in mind, some Missouri superintendents now wonder: Could that happen here? The answer lies somewhere between a courtroom in Cole County and the legislature in Jefferson City.

Consolidation is generally a taboo political subject, said Jim Morris, director of public information at the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. "People tend to have strong opinions on this issue."

Morris said consolidation was discussed in recent years due to the severity of the state's funding situation, but the topic hasn't surfaced as much lately since finances have improved.

"The question of whether consolidation could be a byproduct of the school funding lawsuit is anybody's guess," said Morris, "It could happen, but that's speculative at this point."

The lawsuit challenging the equity and adequacy of Missouri's funding mechanism, known as the foundation formula, was filed in January 2004 by the Committee for Education Equality, a group representing more than 240 districts throughout the state.

If Missouri were to follow in Arkansas's footsteps and consolidate all districts with fewer than 350 students, around 164 of the state's 524 districts would be affected. That prospect was enough to prompt the Missouri Association of Rural Education to begin a recent campaign against small school consolidation in Missouri.

"The reason we're doing this now is to be proactive and get the word out that we do have good small rural schools," said Dr. Ray Patrick, executive director of the Warrensburg, Mo.-based group.

The association's members include 320 of the state's 524 districts. Patrick says national consultant Dr. Craig Wood, who was hired by the state in 2003 to examine the current funding system, told the legislature last year it had two options in fixing the funding problem -- raising taxes or consolidating.

"It's pretty obvious from the position the legislature took last year they're not going to raise taxes," Patrick said. "But it's our position that if a school district wants to reorganize or consolidate, that should be left up to residents in that district."

Local superintendents in small districts agreed, pointing out the many benefits smaller districts offer students, parents and teachers.

"Go ask the parents of smaller districts if they want to consolidate, and I think they will be overwhelmingly opposed to that," said David Fuemmeler, superintendent of Nell Holcomb School District. "There may be a point when schools are too small to function, but that's best determined by state standards and the local community."

No official stance

Morris said DESE does not have an official stance on school consolidation; however, in a position statement issued last fall, the state board of education advised that school size should not be a component in a new funding system.

"The decisive factor should be the quality of education. If a school district can meet standards and deliver a quality educational program, we don't care how big or small it is," Morris said. "Consolidation ought not be viewed as an inevitable outcome of the lawsuit. There are other solutions."

Morris said statewide consolidation such as occurred in Arkansas might provide short-term savings with the elimination of facilities, school board and administrative staff.

"But in the long term, the state is still responsible for educating the same number of kids," Morris said. "Consolidation is likely to be a one-time and perhaps fairly small savings."

Arkansas's Plainview-Rover School District consolidated with three other districts to become Two Rivers School District. Jimmy Cunningham is now an assistant superintendent in that district.

"It's forced us to commingle taxes, abolish voting rights and take control from communities," Cunningham said.

But it could have been worse, Cunningham said. Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee originally wanted the minimum enrollment for consolidation to be around 1,000 students, which would have affected many more districts.

"I guess this is about the best that could have happened out of it," Cunningham said. "But we're not satisfied."

Cunningham and representatives from other districts filed a federal lawsuit in late June to stop the mergers. The case has not yet been heard.

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