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Sunday, May 31, 2015

Will There Be Justice for Hughes?

In a monstrous (but sadly not atypical) act of injustice at its April meeting, the State Board of Education denied the Hughes School District access to the recently created Act 60 waiver, despite the fact that the district is not in academic, fiscal, or facilities distress. Instead, the Board voted to consolidate the small, rural, mostly black school district with the 6,000 student district of West Memphis, 30 miles away.

The Hughes School District has filed an appeal of the State Board of Education’s decision in St. Francis County Circuit Court. A hearing has been set for 10:00 a.m. on June 8 in the St. Francis County Courthouse.

According to attorney James Valley, the complaint challenges the consolidation on a number of grounds.  First, the Arkansas Department of Education’s own records showed that the district had 354 students, which is above the statutory minimum of 350 students. 

The lawsuit also challenges the Arkansas Department of Education’s decision to continue to classify the district as being fiscally distressed and using that designation as a reason to deny it a waiver from the 350-student minimum that is now allowed by state law. In the complaint, the Hughes School District points out that its balance has grown over the past three years from approximately $500,000 to almost $1.5 million. The district is also likely to get back about $250,000 being held in escrow since it recently was vindicated in court against three claims of discrimination from former employees and won part of its appeal to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis, MO.

Additionally, the district points out it has been held to a different standard than other districts. The ADE and the State Board of Education said the district failed to have a “clean audit,” which meant it remained fiscally distressed. However, the ADE and SBE released Western Yell County, Brinkley, Alpena, and Hermitage from fiscal distress status in spite of the fact that the districts did not have clean audits.

Finally, the petition points out that Act 377 of 2015, which allowed for waivers, had an emergency clause, which could only have affected the Hughes School District since it was the only district on this year’s consolidation list.  Representative Charlotte Douglas testified to the State Board of Education that she asked that the emergency clause be added so that it could save Hughes. 

Hughes School District Attorney James Valley denounced the decision by the Arkansas Department of Education and the State Board. He said, “The Arkansas Department of Education and the State Board of Education have acted in dubious fashion in their zeal to take over and shut down as many public school districts as they can.  Hughes should not have been on the consolidation list because the ADE’s own record show it had 354 students. Additionally, the department forced the district to drop students from the roll when It should not have done so.”

Valley added, “It seems that the district was only kept in fiscal distress because there was a coordinated plan to make sure Hughes was shut down. At least four other districts in the last two years have been released from fiscal distress despite having audits that were similar to Hughes’s. In fact, Hughes is probably in better financial shape than most of the small school districts in the state and many of the larger ones. On the fiscal distress issue, the ADE is at best inconsistent and making it up as they go along and at worst hypocritical and consciously seeking to decimate the Hughes community and its school district because it can’t pick leadership that it likes.”

Continuing, Valley said, “Finally, the SBE and ADE had testimony that it was the intent of the legislature to save Hughes by adding the emergency clause. If it had not been, there would have been no need for an emergency clause on Act 377 because Hughes was the only district on the consolidation list subject to immediate closure. It is my hope that the court will put a halt to these arbitrary and capricious actions that clearly are motivated by something other than the law and the children in the Hughes School District.”

West Memphis school officials have said they plan to immediately close the Hughes campus and bus the students (pre-K through 12th grade) to various campuses in the city of West Memphis, a daily journey of at least 30 miles. 

If ever there was a case that illustrates the bias of those in power against small/poor/rural/black, this is it. Listed among the state's most rapidly improving districts academically, with a strong and growing financial balance, with excellent leadership, and with strong community support, Hughes deserves a second look both by the court and by the State Board. Will there be justice for Hughes?

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