Arkansas Lawsuit Makes Agricultural Claims

Last Updated: July 23, 2010

This article appeared in the July 2010 Rural Policy Matters.

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Another lawsuit challenging the consolidation of a small school district has been filed in Arkansas, this time in federal court. Friends of Weiner School District have asked for a declaratory judgment to prevent the application of Act 60, the state’s consolidation statute, to the Weiner school district, which is being forced to merge with neighboring Harrisburg because Weiner’s enrollment dropped below the minimum 350-student threshold, triggering Act 60.

The lawsuit claims that closing rural schools violates the Arkansas Constitution by failing to provide an equal opportunity for education for rural students. In addition, the lawsuit makes several unusual claims related to agriculture. One of these is that application of Act 60 violates another section of the state constitution that requires laws supporting agricultural interests be passed. Plaintiffs also claim that the denigration of rural communities that results from closing local schools interrupts the food supply chain of Arkansas and the nation, thereby interrupting interstate commerce in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court in Jonesboro, also cites the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s strategic plan calling for the strengthening of rural communities.

The closure of Weiner School District has also become an issue in the Arkansas governor’s race with both candidates weighing in on whether Act 60 should be repealed. Gubernatorial challenger Jim Keet wants an exception to Act 60 made for Weiner, which had an average student population of 342 last year. Incumbent Governor Mike Beebe has said that there is no provision for exemption from the law and that any action on behalf of Weiner would invite lawsuits from other districts and potentially reopen the school funding suit.

Weiner’s House Representative, Buddy Lovell, proposed a change to the law that would allow for all four of the school year’s quarters to be considered in calculating enrollment. Currently, only the first three quarters are counted. Some small school advocates point out that the three quarter rule hurts rural schools because enrollment often increases in rural schools in the spring due to increases in the number of farm laborers with children in school.

The legislation did not pass last session, but Lovell has promised to reintroduce the bill if re-elected.

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Read more from the July 2010 Rural Policy Matters.