A lawsuit filed Monday could put the brakes on a handover of the imperiled Marvell-Elaine School District to a charter school management company, at least until community members can get a handle on what exactly the three-year contract entails.

Three Marvell residents joined forces with two members of Arkansas CAPES, a group seeking to overturn the Arkansas LEARNS Act by referendum, to seek a temporary restraining order that would put the struggling school district’s contract with the charter school management company Friendship Education Foundation on ice.

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The goal is to freeze what they say has been a rushed and secretive deal that’s been put together unlawfully and outside the public eye. A charter school management company will be paid hundreds of thousands of dollars out of local district coffers, and plaintiffs say they want to know more about what they’ll be getting out of the deal.

“I just want to make sure our community, our parents, have the opportunity to really discuss, to talk with them about what we’re expecting and the changes that do need to be made. People don’t want to feel like things are just being put on them,” plaintiff Jesselia Maples said. A parent who lives in Marvell, Maples said she’s not necessarily opposed to her school district being run by a charter school management group for three years. But is she in favor of the plan? She can’t yet say.

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“We’re being forced to just accept what is being given to us, and it shouldn’t be this way. We should have been a part in the process. That’s been a problem the whole time,” Maples said.

Brian Chilson
Attorney Ali Noland told members of the Arkansas Board of Education they did not yet have the legal authority to hand Marvell-Elaine Schools over to a charter company.

Per Monday’s court filing by attorney Ali Noland:

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The Plaintiffs who are members of Concerned Citizens of the Marvell Area are concerned that cost of the transformation contract, which would be $250,000 and $200,000 per year after that, to be paid out of the Marvell-Elaine School District budget, will reduce the funds available for providing educational resources to Marvell-Elaine students. This concern is especially critical for a small district like Marvell-Elaine, which has many of the same overhead costs as larger districts but has fewer students and therefore receives less per-student foundation funding to cover those costs. Additionally, the Marvell Plaintiffs would like to provide input on the duration of the contract, the terms of its renewal or nonrenewal, and the specific services that the charter-management company will be obligated to provide pursuant to the contract. Finally, the Marvell Plaintiffs are concerned about whether the district will continue to pay a superintendent a full-time salary while also paying Friendship Education Foundation over $200,000 per year to manage the district.

You can read the full filing here.

“The lawsuit has no merit,” Department of Education spokesperson Kimberly Mundell said. “Chamber procedure for this session did not deviate from the process that has been followed by the House and Senate for decades. Democrats and liberal activists in this state are playing politics with kids’ futures while trying to protect the failed status quo. With the Legislature’s passage and Governor Sanders’ signature, LEARNS became the law in Arkansas. The Governor is confident in the process that was followed as well as the transformational, bold change it will bring to kids, educators, and parents.”

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The handover of the Marvell-Elaine School District to the Friendship Education Foundation, a group that operates charter schools in Arkansas and Washington, D.C., is the first “transformation contract” allowed for under the 2023 Arkansas LEARNS Act. With these new transformation contracts, districts in danger of being taken over by the state due to poor performance can contract with an outside entity to oversee, manage and operate the district instead.

The state took over Marvell-Elaine public schools earlier this year and dissolved the school board, putting the district under the sole control of Arkansas Education Secretary Jacob Oliva. The state Board of Education voted Friday to authorize Oliva, in his capacity as the de facto Marvell-Elaine School District, to enter into a transformation contract with the Friendship Education Foundation. Friendship-run charter schools in Little Rock and Pine Bluff earn C grades from the state, while Marvell-Elaine schools have earned F-grades.

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Brian Chilson
Arkansas Education Secretary Jacob Oliva

Friday’s meeting wasn’t called until Thursday, and Maples and others complained they didn’t have time to make arrangements to make the two-hour drive to Little Rock to be there. And the contract state board members voted to authorize was not shared publicly until after the vote, meaning the people affected did not have any chance to weigh in.

A temporary restraining order will give community members time to go through the contract and offer feedback. Anyway, plaintiffs contend Oliva and the state Board of Education don’t yet have the authority to move forward because lawmakers were sloppy with their votes.

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State legislators passed LEARNS and a number of other bills with emergency clauses attached during the 2023 session. Theoretically those bills would go into effect immediately upon the governor’s signature rather than sitting for 90 days after the legislature adjourns like regular bills do.

But critics have noted that while the state constitution specifically requires a separate vote on emergency clauses, those separate votes were never held: Lawmakers voted on the bills and their emergency clauses together.

The LEARNS Act does create the opportunity for struggling districts to enter into “transformation contracts” with charter school management companies, but without an emergency clause in effect, that power doesn’t take effect until later this summer, Noland said in the 19-page filing.

She also argued that there was no real emergency to begin with, so the emergency clause was not valid even had the vote been taken separately. She pointed to Safe Surgery Arkansas v. Thurston, a 2019 Arkansas Supreme Court case in which the court ruled “emergency clauses are appropriate only ‘[i]f it shall be necessary for the preservation of the public peace, health and safety that a measure shall become effective without delay.'”

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It’s time for the courts to jump in and get this runaway train back on track, Noland suggested in a statement Monday evening.

“The LEARNS Act was rushed through the legislature, and the emergency clause in the bill wasn’t passed correctly. It’s simply invalid under the plain language of the Arkansas Constitution. While emergency clauses only regulate the timing of a bill becoming law, for my clients, that timing is extremely important. We fully expect the Arkansas Court system to tell the legislative and executive branches that they aren’t above the law, that the constitution says what it says, and that the LEARNS Act isn’t the law yet in Arkansas.”

While we hash all this out, Noland said she and her clients fear retaliation. In response to a question from THV11 reporter Rolly Hoyt about legal action over the Marvell-Elaine School District, Oliva said he questioned why critics would rather see the district go away entirely rather than be managed by a charter school group.

Did Oliva mean that as a threat, as in: Nice school district you have there, would hate to see anything happen to it? Or was he only suggesting that the alternative to a charter group takeover is to liquidate Marvell-Elaine schools entirely and zone its students for surrounding districts?

Regardless, Noland said she wants the court to ensure there’s no blowback on her clients as they seek to slow down the process so they can get a handle on things.

The Plaintiffs do not want Marvell-Elaine School District to be consolidated, dissolved, or divided. The Plaintiffs want the State Board and the Secretary of Education to slow down the process and include parents, community members, and local elected officials in the monumental decision of whether or not to enter into a “transformation contract” at all, and if so, the selection of the entity with the whom the district will contract and the terms of the contract. Requiring the State Board and Secretary of Education to wait until the LEARNS Act become law before executing the contract accomplishes this goal.

Monday’s court filing is only the latest in the ongoing controversy over Arkansas LEARNS and its wholesale rejiggering of the public education system. A school choice-themed omnibus bill passed at the urging of Gov. Sarah Sanders, Arkansas LEARNS boosts teacher pay, erases caps on charter school numbers and within three years will provide vouchers for Arkansas students who ditch public schools in favor of private, church or home school. Evidence from other states with universal voucher programs already in place show the vast majority of those vouchers funded with public tax dollars end up going to families already enrolled in private schools. And decades into the experiment, charter schools have failed to boost student achievement.

Among LEARNS’ other controversial components are a prohibition on critical race theory in the classroom, a “don’t say gay” provision that bars any discussion on gender identity or sexual orientation until middle school and a requirement that public school students log 75 hours of unpaid community service to be able to graduate.

The new legislation also allows for school districts in danger of being taken over by the state to contract with a charter school management group instead, as is happening now in Marvell-Elaine. While some in the Marvell-Elaine community are excited about the Friendship Education Foundation taking the reins, Maples said she and others need more convincing.

“I want to do what is the best for the children at the end of the day. But I do know this community does not want a charter right now, given everything we’re seeing. It seems like that’s the direction we are going to be going.”

The case is assigned to Pulaski County Circuit Judge Herb Wright.

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