Arkansas Cases Challenge School and District Consolidation

Last Updated: June 25, 2010

This article appeared in the June 2010 Rural Policy Matters.

Two legal cases suggest that a new strategy for challenging consolidation decisions may be emerging in Arkansas, even as state authorities expand their use of consolidation laws.

In one case, the State Board of Education voted to dissolve the Twin Rivers School District in northeast Arkansas for accreditation violations. The district will be annexed into six neighboring districts with students split between them. The State Board had taken over the district in February.

Twin Rivers supporters say that the district has struggled since it was created in 2004 by the forced consolidation of two other districts under the state’s mandatory consolidation law, Act 60. They are appealing the decision to the Arkansas Supreme Court. This is the first time accreditation violations have been the basis for consolidation in the state.

The second case involves Fourche Valley High School in Two Rivers School District near the Ouachita National Forest, which was closed last year. Lawyers representing school patrons argued that state law mandates that geographically isolated schools cannot be dissolved by the State Board of Education, and further that the closure violated the state constitution-mandated right to an education because of the long bus rides for students resulting from the closure of the Fourche Valley school. A majority of members of the Two Rivers school board decided to close Fourche Valley School last year, but because decisions to close a geographically isolated schools must be unanimous, the State Board of Education was required to review it. Patrons appealed the State Board’s decision to uphold the closure to the Arkansas Supreme Court.

The State Supreme Court heard arguments in the Fourche Valley case last month and issued a decision upholding the the decision to close the school. The Court stated that excessive time on a bus is a standard that could only be determined by the legislature, not the State Board of Education which heard the appeal. The constitutional argument failed because the State was not a defendant in the action.

One positive aspect of the ruling is that the decision clarified that the State Board of Education’s decision could be challenged and reviewed in court, making clear that such agency decisions could be appealed. The State Board had claimed that the court had no jurisdiction.

The Arkansas high court’s review was limited in scope under administrative law, which means that unless the local board’s action was arbitrary, capricious, or an abuse of its discretion, the court must let the decision stand.

The attorney who represented Fourche Valley is also working on the Twin Rivers case and says he will amend that appeal to reflect the court’s ruling in this decision.

Read more:

News coverage of the Twin Rivers case:

News coverage of the Fourche Valley/Two Rivers case:

The Court’s opinion:

Read more from the June 2010 Rural Policy Matters.