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Small school can avoid consolidation thanks to the LEARNS Act



Marvell, Arkansas – The Arkansas LEARNS Act gave a school district in Arkansas that was going to merge fresh life.

A transformation contract can be entered into by schools under a statute that was enacted last month, and Marvell-Elaine will be the first to try one.

The Marvell-Elaine School District has long aimed to prepare students like C.J. Neal for success in the future, but for the past year, the school’s future has been in doubt.

“It’s been traumatizing just to know that school would have closed,” Danielle Wright said.

Wright works for the Marvell-Elaine Mustangs and is a father. In December, Wright was informed that the school system might merge with another district or with many other districts.

The Marvell-Elain School District has the lowest performance grade that can be assigned to a school, hence the state education board partially approved the change. The other factor is a 2004 rule that mandates consolidation for schools with less than 350 students for two years in a row.

“When your population is decreasing, I think the standard are just too high when people are just leaving, finding jobs and elsewhere to live for a better living,” Wright said.

However, the Arkansas LEARNS Act gives tiny or underperforming schools another option. There is a clause in its 145 pages that permits underperforming schools to become transformation campuses by hiring a third party to manage the school.

As long as they acquire the state Education Board’s approval, it might be a charter school, an education cooperative system, or another group.

“If this can work in the Delta, this can work anywhere,” State Rep. Mark McElroy said.

Republican McElroy represents District 62, which encompasses all of Lee and Phillips Counties as well as a portion of Monroe County. He has witnessed what consolidation can do to small-town Arkansas as a longtime inhabitant of the Delta.

“There are horses walking in our classrooms where we graduated,” he explained of his alma mater.

A resolution approved by McElroy’s unanimous vote on Tuesday and signed by Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders exempts schools with fewer than 350 pupils from consolidation if any kid must travel more than 40 miles by bus.

“That’s not just 60 minutes. The bus stops and goes so you’re looking at two hours in the morning, and two hours in the afternoon. I just couldn’t see a six-year-old being punished like that,” McElroy said.

The transformative contract will be tried out for the first time in the state by the Delta District. The Education Board intends to switch from state control to a third party for the 2023–2024 academic year after issuing a “all call” for bids.

“I just pray whoever the third party is that they find their best interest in helping us to succeed in bringing our district back up to par,” Wright said.

When Wright was a student, the Marvell and Elaine school districts merged. She said that the state’s ruling from Tuesday didn’t give her all she sought. She would have preferred a state takeover over a takeover by a third party.

“We got the big thing that we wanted and that was to keep our school open,” Wright concluded.

In McElroy’s words, “It wasn’t about saving the building it was about saving the students.”

According to the Arkansas Department of Education, Marvell-Elain has already attracted the interest of three possible partners. The district has the second highest per-pupil spending for a public school in the state, behind Earle, thus the issue might be greater here than elsewhere in the state.

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