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Officials approve resolution for Arkansas school district to contract with charter company

Lindsay Johnson
The Arkansas State Board of Education on Friday passed a resolution for the Marvell-Elaine School District to enter into a “transformation contract” with a charter school company.

The Arkansas State Board of Education on Friday passed a resolution for the Marvell-Elaine School District to enter into a “transformation contract” with the Friendship Education Foundation or Friendship Charter. The district will retain its title, but work in tandem with the third-party company.

Right now, the contract will last three years, and the Arkansas Department of Education would decide whether to continue the contract in the future. The transition will be possible because of language in the recently signed Arkansas LEARNS Act which allows struggling public school districts to be taken over by charter school companies.

In April, the Board of Education avoided consolidating the district with another, and voted to make Marvell-Elaine the first-ever “transformation campus.” The announcement was met with cheers by those in attendance. During the April debate, Education Secretary Jacob Oliva said Friendship Charter was interested in finalizing a contract with Marvell-Elaine.

Stacy Smith, Deputy Commissioner of the Arkansas Department of Education, gave a presentation during the Friday meeting on the contract.

“This is the Marvell-Elaine School District going into contract with a third party,” she said. “The Marvell-Elaine school district is maintained.”

Smith said the property and physical infrastructure at the school was still owned by Marvell-Elaine, but the day-to-day operations will be run by Friendship Charter.

“They are still a public school district,” she said.

Smith said Friendship is in good standing within the state and meets the “standards for accreditation.” She said the organization plans to up recruitment and retention as the district is struggling to retain students.

“This is a partnership,” she said. “When they need support, we hope they're going to reach out and ask us.”

Arkansas LEARNS moved the minimum teacher salary up to $50,000. Smith says under the contract, Friendship Charter will have to pay their teachers the same amount as the law requires.

Outgoing Little Rock School Board member Ali Noland testified in Friday's meeting. She was speaking in her capacity as a lawyer representing the Mayor of Elaine and other citizens who opposed the contract. Noland said her clients were frustrated that they have not seen the contract for themselves, and that the contract is not legally valid.

The LEARNS bill was approved by lawmakers with an emergency clause, which means it becomes law the moment the governor signs it and not months later. For an emergency clause to pass, it needs a two-thirds vote.

Noland said the bill was not yet law in the state of Arkansas, and thusly the Arkansas Department of Education did not have the authority to sign the contract. She called the emergency clause “defective.”

“Second, the language in the emergency clause does not lay out facts sufficient under Arkansas Supreme Court precedent to establish an emergency,” she said. Noland explained that the case law says that the “law itself cannot create the emergency that then justifies the emergency."

Rep. Aaron Pilkington, R-Knoxville, who voted in favor of Arkansas LEARNS, said Noland is misrepresenting the law.

“Common order is to vote on them at the same time,” he said. “You’ll hear the speaker say, 'Your vote is for the bill and the emergency clause.' If the bill gets the higher threshold, it passes. If it’s only got 51 votes, the bill would pass but the emergency clause would not.”

LEARNS passed by a vote of 78 to 21 in the House of Representatives and 26 to eight on the second reading in the Senate.

Pilkington’s opinion was agreed with by a statement released by House spokeswoman Cecillea Pond-Mayo.

“Emergency clause votes are recorded separately in the House Journal. Voting in the House is a matter of process which the House has the authority to determine.”

Noland said the “plain language” of Article 5 Section 1 of the Arkansas Constitution mandates that emergency clauses be voted on separately.

"If upon a yea and nay vote two-thirds of all the members elected to each house, or two-thirds of all the members elected to city or town councils, shall vote upon separate roll call in favor of the measure going into immediate operation,” the section reads.

“I would point to the fact leadership in both the House and Senate minorities are not pushing this false narrative because they know it’s not accurate to how we conduct business,” said Pilkington, comparing the legal theory to the “birtherism” conspiracy theory.

Noland says she plans to sue if the contract goes forward.

Josie Lenora is the Politics/Government Reporter for Little Rock Public Radio.