Bus Rides at Issue in Arkansas Legal Appeal

Last Updated: September 29, 2009

This article appeared in the September 2009 Rural Policy Matters.
How long students may ride a school bus is at the heart of an appeal filed in the Arkansas Supreme Court.
Several students of the Fourche Valley Elementary and High schools, along with their parents, will ask the high court to void decisions by State Board of Education and a lower court of to close the community’s schools until the state defines excessive transportation time. The schools are considered isolated under Arkansas law. The original lawsuit was covered in the July 2009 issue of RPM.
The non-unanimous decision by the Two Rivers School Board (later upheld by the Arkansas State Board of Education and the Pulaski County Circuit Court) to close the schools will result in school bus rides of at least three hours daily through the Yell County mountain country and Ouachita National Forest for many Fourche Valley students. Parents and students claim these ride times will have a negative impact on student health, safety, and education.
At issue is whether excessive ride times violate students’ fundamental right to an adequate and equitable education as guaranteed by the state’s constitution.
The petitioners had argued in Circuit Court that the decision to close the schools was made for financial reasons and is therefore in violation of the Lake View school funding decision, which found among other things that lack of funding was not grounds for failing to provide adequate education to any child.
Further, plaintiffs pointed out that the General Assembly ordered the Arkansas Department of Education to “conduct a study of isolated schools to determine the most efficient method of providing opportunities for an adequate and substantially equal education for students without excessive transportation time,” but that the Department of Education has not made that determination.
“Unless and until the General Assembly determines whether isolated schools are necessary to an adequate educational system the Constitution of Arkansas prohibits closing isolated schools,” stated the plaintiff brief to the lower court.
In his decision, Circuit Judge Collins Kilgore said there was enough evidence backing the closure of the Fourche Valley school and that state education officials followed the proper procedures in letting Two Rivers close it. District officials say the closure will save the district $1.3 million. Kilgore was the same judge who found the state funding system unconstitutional in 2001, a decision that was ultimately upheld by the Arkansas Supreme Court in the Lake View case. “Look, these issues are hard,” Kilgore said to a packed courtroom in downtown Little Rock. “I know they are very hard emotionally and very tragic in some cases, especially on an individual basis.”
Fourche Valley was the subject of a study detailing how the rural school was thriving in the face of adversity. In “When the School is the Community; A Case Study of Fourche Valley School, Briggsville, Arkansas,” Patricia Demler Hadden noted the successes of the small school in achievement measures, climate, community support, and technology access, among others. The school district wasone of the only employers in the area, and many residents must travel to work. And, the adult literacy rate is low. Despite these and other challenges, the community demonstrated strong support for the school and a close connection to school leadership. In the wake of consolidations forced by Arkansas’s Act 60, Fourche Valley made repeated attempts to gain charter school status, but was denied each time by the State Board of Education.
The case will likely be heard by the Court in the next three to six months.
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Read more from the September 2009 Rural Policy Matters.