Senate committee advances legislation allowing charter schools to purchase school facilities in local communities

by Wesley Brown ([email protected]) 329 views 

A Senate committee on Wednesday gave a “do pass” recommendation to legislation that would give charter schools across the state the “right of first refusal” to purchase facilities that are not being fully used by local school districts.

Speaking before a standing-room only crowd in a packed Senate committee meeting room, Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, staunchly defended SB308 by telling fellow lawmakers that the state is currently allowing school buildings across Arkansas to “sit and rot” without proper use from local school districts.

“So it is time to move forward and allow school buildings to be used for school children,” Clark said during the hour-long debate.

Under his nine-page bill, which Clark said he has worked on for four years, every year school districts must submit a master plan to the Arkansas Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation (APSAFT) division that identifies all “unused or underutilized” public school facilities that are designated to be re-used, renovated, or demolished as part of a specific committed project or planned new construction project.

Once a school building or property is identified by APSAF as unused or underutilized, any open-enrollment public charter school within the school district may give notice of its intent to purchase or lease the public school facility or other real property from the district at fair market value.

Each year, APSAFT will also publish on its website a list of school properties across the state that meet the criteria of the program. Other rules of the program deal with a plethora of possible agreements between charter schools and local school districts, such as mortgage liens, bonded debt and lease terms.

Democratic Sens. Joyce Elliott and Linda Chesterfield, both of Little Rock, alternately took offense at several provisions in SB308 they said would cede control of local school buildings across the state to the state Department of Education and allow charter schools to further water down local school districts.

Clark was aided during the debate by Scott Smith and Mark White, the executive director and director of legal services at the University of Central Arkansas’ Public School Resource Center. That pro-charter school group was developed nearly a decade ago at UCA with nearly $5 million in financial support from the Walton Family Foundation.

In one volley between the opponents and supporters of SB308, Clark and Smith took several minutes to explain the technical parts of the bill. Unsatisfied, Chesterfield defiantly told Clark and Smith that the legislation was another in several attempts by state Department of Education officials to promote charter schools and weaken the Little Rock School District and other local school districts across the state.

“So local control is gone as far as this bill is certain, is that what you are saying?” Chesterfield asked Clark. “So how long does a building have to ‘sit and rot’ before a charter school can come in and take it over?”

Doing the contentious debate, several House Democrats from Central Arkansas joined the meeting to show solidarity against the legislation. Although none of the House lawmakers spoke against the bill, they were invited to sit at the Senate table in the crowded committee room that overflowed into the State Capitol hallways.

Following the back-and-forth between lawmakers, Little Rock activist and school volunteer Neil Matthews told the Senate committee that SB308 was an attempt by the legislature to hand over vacant and soon-to-be-closed school properties in Little Rock to local charter schools.

“This bill is another attempt to wrest control from local communities and give it to the business interests that profit from established parallel school systems,” said Matthews, a convener with the Arkansas League of Women Voters. “This bill takes away the power of local taxpayers and their elected school boards to decide on the best use of their school facilities and gives that power to the state.”

Matthews went on to say that local school boards should be able to make decisions concerning facilities in their own communities. She also alluded to the recent decision by State Education Commissioner Johnny Key to approve Little Rock School District Superintendent Michael Poore’s proposal to close three local schools and reuse another.

“By this logic, would you be able to deem an empty Walmart as underutilized and force the sale to say, ‘Kroger’s or Harps?’” Matthews asked the Senate panel.

Following Matthews’ lively speech, the executive director of KIPP Delta Public Schools in Helena spoke in support of Clark’s bill. KIPP Founder Scott Shirey told Senate lawmakers that the charter school he started in Helena was holding classes in a dilapidated mobile home because officials with that distressed school district refused to negotiate with his nonprofit on purchasing local facilities for class space.

“It was not until the state actually had to step in and say look, ‘it is time to sell the building’ and then we had access to it,” he said. “So, I think it is a shame that the building sat there for four years. And to Sen. Clark’s point, literally when we walked in there was a full library in place that had been vacated, there was curriculum there, and I think this (bill) gets to the underutilized concern because it was being utilized for storage.”

Shirey added: “It was just being wasted away …, and that’s why we are hoping for stronger legislation.”

After additional discussion between Chesterfield, Clark and Smith, the Senate panel approved the measure in a voice vote. The re-referred bill now goes to the full Senate.