The state-required consolidation of small Arkansas schools has resulted in a substantial decrease in the number of black school board members in those areas where the consolidations occurred, as well as a reduction in the number of black administrators, according to a study by a group supportive of small schools.
State officials didn’t challenge the study’s findings, but said the purpose of consolidation was to help students, not preserve seats for minority members of school boards or jobs for administrators.
The study was done by the Rural School and Community Trust, a national organization, for Advocates for Community and Rural Education (ACRE), which describes itself as “a grassroots Arkansas organization whose mission is to keep and improve rural community schools.” ACRE said in a statement that the study showed that forced consolidation meant “reduced citizen involvement in local education, disenfranchisement of voters, shrinking leadership opportunities in education for African-Americans, and marginalization of the African-American leaders who remain, with effectively fewer adult African-American role models in education.”
The study concerned the effects of Act 60 of 2003, which mandated consolidation of all school districts with fewer than 350 students. Ninety-nine districts were affected, the study said — 57 that were forced to close, and 42 that received students from the closed districts. Of the 99, 27 were involved in a consolidation in which either the closing or receiving district, or both, had a majority African-American enrollment. The study focused on these 27 districts.
“Forced school district consolidations in Arkansas involving one or more districts with a majority African-American enrollment have resulted in a 55 percent decrease in the number of African-American school board members serving the consolidated districts,” the study found. “Numbers of elected African-American board members declined most sharply — 71 percent — in the areas served by the small school districts that were forced to close. But the number also fell by 22 percent in the areas served by the districts that consolidated with the closed districts.”
Prior to consolidation, the 27 districts had a total of 74 African-American board members (48 percent of all board members of these districts), the study said. After consolidation, the remaining 13 districts had 33 African-American board members (37 percent of all board members). The number of boards with an African-American majority fell from 11 to 2 as a result of consolidation.
The study also found that five out of six African-American administrators in the 27 districts lost their jobs as a result of Act 60. Statewide, the number of African-American superintendents fell from 22 to 17.
State Sen. Jim Argue of Little Rock, chairman of the Senate Education Committee and a supporter of consolidation, said in an e-mail, “These interest groups are paid to defend rural schools, and their research must be evaluated with their bias in mind.”
Beyond that, Argue said, “Here’s the choice. Leave tiny school districts across Arkansas in place so that adults keep their jobs or board positions, even though it’s indisputable that these tiny districts have survived by depriving their students of curriculum, that they are the worst in terms of compensating teachers, and in the end, it’s at the expense of student achievement. Or instead, consolidate these tiny districts to improve their efficiency, their salaries, and the educational opportunity provided the students. For me, I want my tax dollars serving students, and I want those tax dollars used efficiently.”
Argue added that both state and federal laws work to prevent racial discrimination in school board elections.
Julie Johnson Thompson, director of communications for the state Education Department, said the Department didn’t keep records on the racial makeup of school boards. She said the goal of Act 60 was “to improve educational opportunities for students. The racial makeup of the student body was one consideration, but not a predominant one. The racial makeup of the school board was not a consideration.”
Dan Farley, executive director of the Arkansas School Boards Association, said the study’s numbers “could be right,” but he wouldn’t know until the School Boards Association did a survey of its own later this fall. He said that the total number of school board members statewide, black and white, declined from 1,800 to a little over 1,500 because of consolidation.