School Districts and Patrons Sue State Over Forced Consolidation

JUNE 4, 2004 - Posted at 2:39 p.m. CDT

LITTLE ROCK, AR - Scores of school patrons and districts have filed a federal equal-protection lawsuit to block consolidation of small Arkansas school districts.  The lawsuit asks a federal judge to take over jurisdiction of Arkansas schools and to prevent the consolidation of districts.

The plaintiffs include at least 70 individuals and 20 small Arkansas school districts and seven organizations that support public schools, such as teacher-parent groups.  They contend the moves would violate a number of their constitutional rights.

The lawsuit says forced consolidation has nothing to do with the state's ability to meet a Supreme Court order to make its public schools more equitable.

It says consolidation would prevent school patrons from electing school board members of their choice.  It says patrons also would have little or no control over budgeting matters, the spending of tax dollars or academic programs selected for their children.

Governor Mike Huckabee, who is named in the suit, called the lawsuit "misquided" for focusing on protecting schools instead of children.

But the lawsuit claims that the restructuring discriminates against racial minorities.  It says the state is dealing with chronic underfunding for predominantly black Delta school districts by closing them.

The lawsuit was filed by Bill Lewellen.  He's one of the lawyers for the Lake View district, which originally challenged the way the state finances its schools for 450,000 students.

Lewellen said the lawsuit was being funded primarily by individuals, but that districts should probably provide some of their own money too.   He also said more districts would likely join as plaintiffs.

Defendants include Huckabee, members of the state Board of Education and state House and Senate leaders.

Arkansas legislators this year approved the forced administrative consolidation or annexation of districts with fewer than 350 students.  Actual closings of schools couldn't come until at least the 2005-2006 school year.  The state Board of Education recently completed a reorganization of 57 small districts affected by the law.

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)