September 8, 2003 - Posted at: 2:04 p.m. CDT
BARTON, Ark. -- Opponents of consolidation of public school districts in Arkansas argue that the state would hurt small communities by altering the structure of their schools.
Governor Huckabee's plan would consolidate many districts with fewer than 1,500 students.
But the plan has stalled because of a lobbying effort by residents of rural towns who don't want to lose the community identity they get from their schools. In many cases, they would lose their high school football teams, and plenty of residents don't want that to happen.
The governor says the obsession with football is disturbing in a state that ranks near the bottom in most educational categories. He says residents should be more concerned about the fact that nearly a quarter of Arkansans don't have a high school diploma.
The smallest school district in the state that offers football is in Gillett, and Superintendent Johnnie Johnson says students and community leaders are fighting to keep their team.
Johnson says he wants to offer children something to do other than to just go to school. He says he resents the governor's argument that there is too much emphasis on sports.
Huckabee argues that consolidation is the best way to ensure that an estimated $825 million a year in new funding needed to meet the court mandate is spent effectively and efficiently. Changing Arkansas' student-teacher ratio at the high school level from 14-to-one to 17-to-one has been estimated to save the state up to $250 million.
Legislators have until January first to find solutions to satisfy the court order.