LITTLE ROCK — The state Board of Education voted Thursday to consolidate the Hughes School District in St. Francis County with the West Memphis School District in Crittenden County because of dwindling enrollment in the Hughes district.

LITTLE ROCK — The state Board of Education voted Thursday to consolidate the Hughes School District in St. Francis County with the West Memphis School District in Crittenden County because of dwindling enrollment in the Hughes district.


The board also voted to classify the Yellville-Summit School District in Marion County as fiscally distressed.


The Hughes district had an average daily membership of 348 students in the 2012-13 school year and 344 students in the 2013-14 school year. Arkansas law requires a school district with enrollment that falls below 350 for two consecutive years to be consolidated with another district.


Earlier in the current school year, the Hughes district submitted a petition for voluntary consolidation with the Forrest City School District, but the latter district later withdrew its support for the petition.


District officials, supporters, students and the district’s lawyer, James Valley, asked the board not to vote for consolidation. Valley argued that the board could be spared from forced consolidation under the recently enacted Act 377 of 2015, which allows a district with dwindling enrollment to apply for a waiver from consolidation if it is not in fiscal or academic distress or in violation of accreditation standards.


State Department of Education lawyer Jeremy Lasiter told the board the Hughes district has been in fiscal distress for the past two school years because of audit findings, so Act 377 does not apply to it.


Hughes Superintendent Sheryl Owens told the board the district has reduced its audit findings to "very few."


Valley argued that the common meaning of "fiscal distress" is "money trouble" and said the district’s finances are sound.


He also noted that Act 377 passed with an emergency clause to make it effective immediately. He said the only district facing forced consolidation when the law was passed was the Hughes district, so the Legislature must have intended the law to apply to the district.


Valley said the board was in the position of a firefighter sent to save a child from a burning building.


"You raise your fire wagon ladder to the third floor and you get to look in, and today you decide: Do you reach in and save that child that you went to save, or do you say, ‘No, we don’t want to save you’?" he said.


State Rep. Charlotte Douglas, R-Alma, told the board she was a co-sponsor of Act 377 and said she proposed the emergency clause "in hopes that it would capture Hughes."


Sam Ledbetter, the board’s chairman, said it appeared the board was prohibited by law from granting a waiver.


Board member Alice Mahony moved to grant the district a one-year waiver from consolidation, but her motion failed in a 3-5 vote. A motion by Diane Zook to consolidate the district with the West Memphis district passed in a 7-1 vote, with Mahony casting the only "no" vote.


Owens said after the vote, "I’m disappointed, but I have to respect their decision."


Valley also said he was disappointed and said he believed the board was wrong about the waiver.


Also Thursday, the board voted to classify the Yellville-Summit School District in Marion County as fiscally distressed because of declining fund balances.


The district ended the 2012-13 school year with a balance of just more than $900,000, ended the 2103-14 school year with a balance of $550,000 and is projected to end the current school year with a balance of $81,000. The district did not oppose the classification.


A district in fiscal distress has five years to turn its finances around or face mandatory consolidation.