LITTLE ROCK — A bill that would allow some Arkansas school districts with dwindling student populations to avoid mandatory consolidation with other districts cleared a House committee Thursday.

LITTLE ROCK — A bill that would allow some Arkansas school districts with dwindling student populations to avoid mandatory consolidation with other districts cleared a House committee Thursday.


The House Education Committee gave a "do pass" recommendation to House Bill 1263 by Rep. Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs, which would allow a district with a student population that is below 350 for two consecutive years to request a waiver if the district is not in academic, fiscal, or facilities distress or on probation for accreditation violations.


"This is just a bill to let these schools continue," Cozart told the committee, which he chairs. "As we all know, we all talk about a school that failed a few years ago but they just fell below that number. They had everything going for them but they just fell below that number."


Cozart said there are currently 28 school districts in the state that are in imminent danger of forced consolidation because of falling attendance levels.


"I understand the purpose of the legislation," said Rep. Warwick Sabin, D-Little Rock, "I know there are a lot of schools that are doing well that may not meet that threshold, but I would be concerned about the impact of this bill on the overall adequacy standards in the state."


Sabin asked if studies had been done to gauge the impact of the bill on the state’s ability to meet educational adequacy.


Cozart replied that although adequacy studies had not been done, districts that could meet the threshold to request a waiver should meet adequacy standards.


"If there’s anything that puts them into any kind of distress, this would kick them out of that," Cozart said.


Rich Nagel of the Arkansas Education Association said the association opposes the bill.


"We feel it’s difficult to know what will be required under this bill once the session has ended," Nagel said. "The minimum salary bill hasn’t been introduced at this time."


Supporting the bill was Renee Carr of the 2,000-member Rural Community Alliance, who said that the 11 years since passage of Act 60, which mandated the consolidation of school districts that fell below the 350 student threshold for two years, have taken a toll on rural communities.


"I don’t think I can overstate the detriment that Act 60 has caused for our state," said Carr. "This law, that was touted as administrative consolidation only, has proven otherwise. The case history of 11 years shows that 98 schools have been closed."


Carr said longer bus rides have reduced students’ home time, parental involvement has fallen and shuttered schools in districts that have been consolidated have fallen into disrepair.


Former Republican House member Randy Alexander of Fayetteville, who introduced legislation in the last session to place a two-year moratorium on Act 60, said the National Association of Education Policy has studied consolidation and found it lacking.


"Their report says there is no evidence to suggest (consolidation) is a good idea," he said. "They say the benefits of consolidation were largely realized in the first half of the 20th century, and now schools could benefit from deconsolidation."


Alexander said the NAEP also concluded that of all the methods for deciding when to consolidate schools, the worst method was to choose a cutoff number.


"Which of course is what we did," he said.


The bill advanced in a voice vote and goes next to the full House.


House Speaker Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia, said later he expected the measure to receive broad support in the House.


"I’ve heard several members discussing it, and they all seem to be generally positive about it," he said.


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John Lyon contributed to this report.