House passes bill requiring public schools to sell to charters

by Steve Brawner (BRAWNERSTEVE@MAC.COM) 126 views 

The Arkansas House of Representatives Thursday advanced a bill requiring public schools to sell or lease underused buildings to charter schools after voting down the bill the day before.

They also voted to require school districts that outsource operations to private companies to provide extra funding to the teacher retirement system, and voted to restore to the governor the power of naming the director of the Arkansas Department of Higher Education.

The House narrowly approved Senate Bill 308 by Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, which 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.

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.

The bill initially passed the House the day before, 51-32, but opponents, needing to disqualify only one vote, instigated a parliamentary procedural maneuver, “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. That happened quickly.

On Thursday, the House voted 59-27 to reconsider the bill and then voted 53-32 to pass the measure, with four voting present. Opponents again called for sounding the ballot, but this time all supporters were in their seats. Rep. Mark Lowery, R-Maumelle, a co-sponsor, told legislators that the buildings could be put to good use or otherwise left to rot. “Please don’t let it rot,” he said.

Opponents included Rep. Charles Blake, D-Little Rock, who said the bill is a “slippery slope,” and Rep. Vivian Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, who said legislators would never consider a bill requiring Walmart to sell or lease a building to Target.

The bill has already passed the Senate and is headed back to the Senate and then the governor’s desk.

House members also passed House Bill 1287 by Rep. Johnny Rye, R-Trumann, which would require school districts hiring private contractors to perform normal operations such as substitute teaching and cafeteria services to bring those employees into the Arkansas Teacher Retirement System and pay 14% of their salaries into their system, or pay a surcharge that rises to 4% by 2022. The vote was 58-23 with 1 voting present.

House members voted 94-0 for House Bill 1945 by Rep. Charlotte Douglas, R-Alma, returning the governor’s power to appoint the director of the Arkansas Department of Higher Education. Douglas said that power was taken from the governor in the 2000s and given to the Higher Education Coordinating Board. The bill would let the governor appoint that director like he or she appoints all other cabinet members, Douglas said.