A bill that would have given charter schools the right of first access to unused and underutilized public school buildings failed in the House of Representatives Wednesday, but the bill’s co-sponsor said he will try again Thursday.
Senate Bill 308 by Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, has already passed the Senate and initially passed in the House 51-32 with nine voting present, but opponents, needing to disqualify only one vote, instigated a parliamentary procedural maneuver called “sounding the ballot” where the speaker of the House calls the roll, and if a legislator is not in their seat, their vote is stricken.
It required the reading of only a few names before the first yes vote, Rep. Mary Bentley, R-Perryville, was not in the chamber, reducing the total to 50 and failing the bill. Supporters then attempted to expunge the vote with a two-thirds vote of the chamber, but that effort fell short 59-23. The bill’s co-sponsor, Rep. Mark Lowery, said the bill will be reconsidered Thursday.
The bill would require school districts to submit an annual report to the Department of Education identifying all unused and underutilized school facilities. Districts would be required to make the facilities available to existing open-enrollment charter schools within the district’s geographic boundaries for purchase or lease at no more than fair market value. The public school would not have had to participate if the property would be needed for growth.
Open-enrollment charter schools are public schools funded with taxpayer dollars but operated by private entities and given more flexibility regarding rules, regulations and methods.
In presenting the bill, Lowery pointed to the Helena-West Helena School District, which refused to sell an unused building to the KIPP Delta Public Schools and then did so only after it had fallen into disrepair.
Opponents included Rep. Charles Blake, D-Little Rock, who said the bill was usurping the power of local school districts, and Rep. Vivian Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, who said public schools should not be required to sell a building to a competitor.