A letter received Monday from the League of United Latin American Citizens threatens to take legal action if the Green Forest School Board continues with its previously stated plans to redraw their district zones without new, across-the-board elections.
A response letter from the Green Forest School Board's law firm of record Cypert, Crouch, Clark & Harwell PLLC of Springdale, which is signed by Matthew Fryar for Charles L. Harwell, was distributed at Monday night's meeting and denies LULAC's claim that Green Forest is doing anything wrong or illegal. It stands by the board's decision to not hold new elections for all its members and asks for further proof from LULAC that the board is breaking any law.
The Green Forest school zones are being redrawn in accordance with state and federal regulations requiring redistricting if a Census shows more than a ten percent difference in zone populations in a city with a significant minority population. The most recent Census Bureau figures show that Green Forest is 39 percent Hispanic within city limits.
However, the school board has chosen not to call new school board elections for all its members, against the recommendation of the Arkansas Department of Education and the state school board association.
A Feb. 15, 2011, memo from the Arkansas Department of Education states: "It is our understanding that if a district is required to create or redraw zones based on 2010 Census data, all of its board positions, both zoned and at-large, shall be up for election at the annual school election on Sept. 18, 2012, regardless of the remaining term length of the current members of the board."
A memorandum from Dan Farley, executive director of the Arkansas School Boards Association, dated Feb. 8, 2011, lays out what he believes should be the next steps for a district that has voted to rezone: "The zone plan must be filed with the county clerk so as to enable the clerk to establish which voters belong to which zones. At the next school election, or no later than the regular school election of 2012, following the redrawing of the zones, all school board positions must be up for election, including any at-large positions."
A separate memo that was sent by the Department of Education on Feb. 15, 2011, adds: "School district leaders are strongly encouraged to consult with their own legal counsel for guidance on compliance with state and federal law regarding zoning."
The latter is what Green Forest has done, and they received the opinion that has guided their current vote.
That legal response to LULAC, dated May 17, says: "Without citation or support, you boldly suggest that Berryville and other school districts are 'follow[ing] the law' and that Green Forest should do the same. I submit to you that there are a number of districts that have done exactly as Green Forest has done. Contrary to your unsupported legal conclusions, the Board has acted upon our advice, and followed the law."
The letter from LULAC's Arkansas State Director Rafael Arciga Garcia, also sent via email on Monday to Carroll County News, was addressed to school board President Bud Phillips, who did not attend Monday night's board meeting.
The letter states: "You are hereby notified that LULAC will make a written complaint to the U.S. Department of Justice's voting rights division if the Green Forest school board fails to abide by the law regarding rezoning and new school board elections. We hope that this legal challenge will clarify the confusion regarding the issue. Of course, if you choose to follow the law and hold the required election, no such complaint will be necessary.
The email accompanying the LULAC letter, also from Garcia, says:
"Attached you will find a letter we have sent to the Green Forest School Board. ... They have blatantly refused to comply with state and federal law. As you know, they complied in part by redistricting in response to the new U.S. Census Bureau statistics which show that Green Forest's population is 39 percent Hispanic within the city limits. But the board has chosen to defy the law and have refused to call a required special election in which all board members must stand for re-election.
"Adjacent Berryville recognized the need to obey the law -- giving minority voters an opportunity to seek office. Green Forest's refusal to obey the law places them at risk of losing $1.2 million in state funding next year -- the penalty for refusing to obey federal election law.
"The board stated in recent news articles that it would not comply with the law unless faced with a legal challenge. In the attached letter, we are alerting them that we will provide the legal challenge. ... We are hoping that our letter will prompt them to obey the law."
The school board and its attorney made it clear on Monday that it believes it already is following the law and has no immediate plans to change its course of action. As for the loss in funding, the attorney said in his response that he does not see that threat as applicable in this situation.
The district's course of action was put on paper and made official last week. At the Carroll County Election Commission meeting on Friday morning, the commissioners reviewed the rezoning plans submitted by Berryville and Green Forest school districts.
Berryville's plan included new elections, while Green Forest's came with a letter that stated: "Upon legal counsel, the Green Forest School Board has voted to not conduct new elections for the new zones, they are just redrawing the zone lines as attached."
Carroll County Election Commissioner Levi Phillips said about the issue: "We have two districts, both operating under the same law. Both are interpreting the law in different ways. Berryville is holding new elections, Green Forest is not. The zones are what we are interested in. They voted to rezone their district without holding new elections. The election commission is an administrative body. We have no input on whether they hold elections or not."
If Green Forest decides to change their course and hold elections, they need to be quick about it. June 10 is the first day of petition circulation for people interested in running for board positions, and according to Election Coordinator Bethe Henley, although there is no state law regarding a deadline, traditionally, June 1 is the day the information is provided to the County Clerk's Office to allow interested potential candidates to file or announce their intention to file after they have enough petition signatures. After that, petitions are due to be filed no later than July 10; ballot positions are drawn shortly after; and paperwork is sent to the ballot printers as early as July 13, she said.
An election official who asked to remain unnamed explained the dilemma this way: "When a person is moved out of one zone and into another (by rezoning or redistricting) to be represented by a person they were never allowed to vote for, they are called disenfranchised. Sometimes when the letter of the law is vague, you have to pay more attention to the spirit of the law."
For the first part of this breaking story, "Group threatens legal action against Green Forest schools," click here.