The grandmother of two children in the Helena-West Helena School District has filed suit to stop the sale of all or parts of four vacant elementary schools for $80,000 to the KIPP charter school chain.
Sandra Bagley, who’s active in school groups in the district, says the “garage sale” price amounts to an illegal exaction of taxpayer money. The sale was approved by Superintendent John Hoy over the advisory school board now in place. The district was taken over by the state last year and John Hoy was tapped from the Education Department to act as superintendent. His “school” board is the state commissioner of education. Bagley’s husband
son, Andrew, is a member of the advisory board.
Beechcrest Elementary was sold to KIPP for $50,000. The Woodruff, Helena Crossing and a portion of the Southland schools were sold for $30,000. Bagley said the bidding process was flawed, no appraisals were done and the purchase prices so small as to amount to donations. She said it made no sense to give away property from a district in fiscal distress, the reason for its state takeover.
James Valley, attorney in the lawsuit, said the deal amounts to a forced sale to a competitor, akin to McDonald’s being forced to sell a property to Wendy’s. He said the district was fighting against a “Goliath that includes the Arkansas Department of Education, KIPP’s high-powered lobbyists and powerful foundations and rich concerns who want to dismantle public education in Helena through state control.”
Valley references the high-powered push by the Walton Foundation and other groups backed by wealthy Arkansans including the Murphy, Stephens and Hussman families to pursue a “school reform” agenda focused heavily on charter schools. KIPP has been lauded for its schools in Helena and other locations aimed at lifting minority populations in poverty, but other Delta school districts have scored some successes of their own. The charter schools don’t enjoy the same state support for facilities as conventional school districts, but acquiring a full school for virtually no cost does more than equalize the playing field, it provides an edge for charter schools over conventional school districts. Conventional public school districts win approval of voters for local property tax millages to pay for buildings. Thus, local tax millages paid for the buildings being essentially given away.
The Helena suit has broader implications should it succeed in slowing state giveaway of properties financed by local school district taxpayers. The Helena giveaway could become a model, for example, if the Walton Foundation is successful in its paid lobbyists’ aim for the state to take over the Little Rock School District and charterize as much of it as possible.