Bill to save Arkansas Delta school from consolidation awaits governor’s signature

By: - April 6, 2023 2:42 pm

Long-time educator Rosie Tate requests that Marvell-Elaine students not be required to take long bus rides to school through the consolidation process during a State Education Board meeting on Mar. 9, 2023. (Antoinette Grajeda/Arkansas Advocate)

A small Delta community is hopeful a bill the Arkansas Senate sent to the governor’s desk Thursday will save their school from closing.

The Marvell-Elaine school district in rural Phillips County is scheduled to be consolidated this year under the nearly 20-year-old Public Education Reorganization Act, which requires the Arkansas Department of Education to publish an annual list of all districts with fewer than 350 students eligible for consolidation with another district. 

Under current law, districts that do not submit a plan for voluntary consolidation or have their petition approved by the State Board of Education shall be consolidated by the board by May 1, with consolidation effective July 1.

Rep. Mark McElroy, R-Tillar
Rep. Mark McElroy, R-Tillar
(Courtesy of the Arkansas House of Representatives)

House Bill 1504 by Rep. Mark McElroy, R-Tillar, proposes exceptions for districts that are classified as in need of Level 5 – Intensive support and that have students who would have to ride a bus more than 40 miles to attend the new consolidated district. 

If both conditions exist, the state would assume authority over the school district, not close a public school and fire the district’s superintendent. 

HB 1504 contains an emergency clause, so it would go into effect immediately, directly affecting Marvell-Elaine, which is located in McElroy’s district.

“All I’m trying to do is save our school, and I don’t apologize for it and I’m not too proud to beg,” McElroy told the Senate Education Committee Wednesday. “Please just give these kids a chance.”

This is the second school consolidation bill approved by the General Assembly this session. 

Senate Bill 262 by Sen. John Payton, R-Wilburn, eliminates the requirement that ADE produce an annual list and consolidate districts whose daily average membership falls below 350 for two consecutive years. Payton’s bill preserves the right for districts to consolidate if they so choose.  

The Arkansas House or Representatives sent SB 262 to Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders on March 29. Sanders signed the legislation, now Act 461, into law this week.

Supporters of HB 1504 argued McElroy’s bill is needed because SB 262 will not go into effect until 90 days after the end of the legislative session and Marvell-Elaine needs help now. Officials are expected to make a final decision on the district’s future at the state board’s monthly meeting April 13 in Marvell.

Sixty-eight consolidations have occurred since the Public Education Reorganization Act was signed into law in 2004 by then-Gov. Mike Huckabee, according to ADE; 46 occurred in 2004. 

Marvell-Elaine is the only district facing consolidation this year, according to an ADE spokeswoman.


Last-ditch effort

The Marvell-Elaine School District formed in 2006 with the merger of two Phillips County districts. Marvell-Elaine learned it was once again facing consolidation last year due to low enrollment.

Marvell-Elaine has 306 students and 92% are African American, according to ADE

Act 377 of 2015 allows districts to submit a waiver to avoid consolidation, but the state board denied Marvell-Elaine’s request in December. 

In a letter dated Feb. 28, the Marvell-Elaine superintendent and board president asked that the state board suspend finalizing a consolidation plan until after lawmakers considered Payton’s bill.

The state board’s general counsel responded that under current law, if the district didn’t file for voluntary administrative annexation or consolidation by March 1, the state board must consolidate the district by May 1, with the consolidation being effective July 1. 

Members of the Marvell-Elaine community attended the state board’s meeting on Mar. 9 in Little Rock and pleaded with officials not to close their schools

Following the meeting, superintendent Katina Ray told the Advocate, “We are open to anything that will help save our district.”

Fannie Fields speaking while Marvell community members look on
Fannie Fields asks the State Board of Education not to consolidate the Marvell-Elaine School District as district officials and community members listen during a meeting on Mar. 9, 2023.
(Antoinette Grajeda/Arkansas Advocate)

On Mar. 27, the Marvell-Elaine school board hosted a special meeting that included a presentation by Joe Harris, CEO of the Friendship Education Foundation. The charter management organization manages the Friendship Aspire Academy schools in Arkansas.

Harris said he was moved by Marvell-Elaine community members’ testimony at the state board meeting, after which he was asked by “a number of people at high levels, starting in the governor’s office,” to reach out to the district.

“You all made a really big impact on not just the governor, but the commissioner and all the supporters of education,” Harris said. “And while y’all were talking, I probably got about four text messages saying, ‘Joe, talk to Marvell-Elaine.’ So we’re here in the spirit to introduce ourselves and talk about Friendship and asking how can we help in any way.”

Founded in 1997 in Washington D.C., the organization was invited to Arkansas by the Walton Family Foundation, and now has eight campuses across the state, Harris said. 

School board members expressed interest during the special meeting in continuing conversations about what a partnership between the district and Friendship could look like.

Community members asked the Friendship staff questions during a meeting on April 3. One parent who joined Marvell-Elaine stakeholders on a tour of a Pine Bluff Friendship school on March 31 said she liked what she saw — engaged students and energetic people, which is what’s needed at her child’s school.

She said Marvell-Elaine could be a high-performing school academically, but parental involvement and additional assistance is needed. 

“We need this help. We need help,” she said. “I know our kids can do it, but the parents have got to put their feet down and do what they got to do to help them help our kids. It’s no other way.” 

Supporters of keeping Marvell-Elaine open have cited a provision of the LEARNS Act, signed into law in March, that permits partnerships between struggling public school districts and charter schools.

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Under the law, public school districts with a “D-” or “F-” rating or in need of Level 5-Intensive Support can be exempt from state takeover if they partner with an open-enrollment charter or another State Board-approved entity to create “a public school district transformation campus.”

Both Marvell-Elaine’s high school and elementary school have an “F-”ranking. Ninety-five Arkansas schools have an “F-” ranking, according to ADE. Most of the districts with whom Marvell-Elaine could be consolidated also have schools with low academic rankings.

Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, voiced her support for using the LEARNS Act to support the struggling district during a speech on the Senate floor Thursday.

“We’ve not had the opportunity that the LEARNS Act provides to partner with somebody who knows education and can probably give these kids a boost…we need to give them this chance. Just give ‘em a chance to be kids and to do better,” she said.

Chesterfield voted for HB 1504 along with 30 other senators. Two members of the Senate were absent. Republican Sens. Jim Dotson and Clint Penzo voted present.


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Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is a multimedia journalist who has reported since 2007 on a wide range of topics, including politics, health, education, immigration and the arts for NPR affiliates, print publications and digital platforms. A University of Arkansas alumna, she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and a master’s degree in documentary film.