LITTLE ROCK – Three of four school consolidations approved Tuesday by the state Board of Education were on unanimous votes, but the board chairwoman had to break a tie to make the Gould School District part of the Dumas School District.
Geography, racial makeup of the districts and parental involvement were discussed for more than an hour before JoNell Caldwell was forced to break the 3-3 tie.
“This is one of the most difficult ones we’ve had,” board member Luke Gordy of Van Buren after the vote.
The three mergers approved unanimously:
-Grady with Star City.
-Mount Holly with Smackover.
-Union with El Dorado.
Discussion regarding consolidation of the Crawfordsville School District was deferred until next Tuesday because the district’s attorney, Bill Lewellen, was not present.
Under a law passed by the Legislature this year, 57 of the state’s 308 school districts – those with student populations of 350 or less – are required to merge with another district by July 1. The board has been reviewing voluntary and involuntary mergers for more than a month.
Consolidation proposals by the districts discussed Tuesday had been turned down by the board in previous meetings.
Last week, the board rejected a voluntary consolidation request for Grady to merge with Gould because both are majority black districts and the new district would have violated federal desegregation laws.
Tuesday’s discussion revolved around consolidating the Gould district with Dumas, which also is a majority black district, or Star City, which is a majority white district.
Dumas Superintendent Tom Cox opposed the merger with Gould, saying it would create a district with 68 percent black students, which could cause some problem with desegregation laws. He said 64 percent of the students in Dumas are black and 29 percent white, and with the addition of students from Gould, which is 99 percent black, “it furthers desegregation of the Dumas School District.”
Cox said the Dumas School Board opposed merging with Gould because “we didn’t want to be in the position of saying that we intentionally and knowingly with all of the facts further thwarted desegregation,” he said, adding that there is nearly a 75 percent poverty rate in Dumas as well.
Star City Superintendent Rhonda Mullikin also opposed merging with Gould. With the board already having approved a merger of Grady with Star City, there would be no room for the Gould students, she testified.
Gould Superintendent Ronald S. Laurent testified that the school board’s second choice, next to merging with Grady, was merging with Dumas.
He said most people in Gould travel to Dumas daily and are familiar with the community. He also said Gould is just nine miles from Dumas, while it is 18 miles or more to Star City.
He said a merger with Dumas would make it much more convenient for parents to be involved with their children’s schooling.
“There were pros and cons to each side,” said Gordy, who voted against the merger of Gould and Dumas. “My concern was the racial makeup of the resulting district and I thought Dumas had a good argument regarding their current population in poverty. I thought it would be in the best interest of the kids from Gould to go to Star City from a diversity standpoint.
Caldwell said she voted for the merger because she couldn’t support a merger that would have forced children to travel 20 miles or more by bus.
Board member Charles King of Marianna said he voted for the merger because “of community makeup and the presentation on the part of the Gould superintendent and what he saw was for the best interest of the parents in the area, where they work … more parental involvement.”
Also receiving considerable debate Tuesday was a request by the Union School District to become part of the district resulting from the recent board-approved Strong-Huttig consolidation.
The board rejected the proposal and instead approved merging Union with El Dorado.
Board of Education members said the merger would be more efficient and would provide more educational opportunities for Union students.
Union school officials and one resident of the district said they did not want to merge with El Dorado because of its size. They preferred Strong-Huttig because that district is much smaller.