No. 8 News Story of the Year: School rezoning issue causes a stir

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

GREEN FOREST -- Shifting voter demographics caused headaches for school officials in 2012. In Green Forest, confusion over the requirements of the law led to accusations of disenfranchising voters and threats of litigation -- some from a national voter group, and earning it a spot on our Top Ten list.

Officials in Berryville and Green Forest redrew school zone boundaries this year, to comply with state and federal laws that require redistricting when a Census reveals more than a ten percent difference in zone populations in a city with a minority population of ten percent or more.

However, officials in the two districts disagreed in their interpretation of what the law required next.

Berryville held new elections for all board positions in September, unseating several incumbents.

The Green Forest School Board took a different tack, voting 4-3 in April to rezone the district without holding new elections. This decision went against the recommendations of the Arkansas Department of Education and the state school board association.

A Feb. 15, 2011, memo from the Arkansas Department of Education stated: "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 memo from Dan Farley, executive director of the Arkansas School Boards Association, dated Feb. 8, 2011, stated similarly:

"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."

School board members disregarded this guidance, saying they had received conflicting opinions from different sources, citing the small number of people affected by the rezoning (about 30 households), and noting the expense of holding an election (about $5,000).

They also relied on a third memo, sent by the Department of Education on Feb. 15, 2011, that encouraged school officials to consult with their own legal counsel when deciding how to deal with rezoning, and the opinion of their attorneys -- who counseled them an election would not be necessary.

Ultimately, they said, no one would know for sure about the law until it was challenged in court.

In May, the League of United Latin American Citizens, a Hispanic civil rights organization, threatened to do just that.

In a letter addressed to Green Forest School Board President Bud Phillips, LULAC Arkansas Director, Rafael Arciga Garcia, wrote:

"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."

In a May 22 email, Garcia told CCN that school board members had "blatantly refused to comply with state and federal law."

The board declined to act on the letter at a May 22 meeting.

A response letter from the 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 the meeting and denied LULAC's claim that Green Forest was doing anything wrong or illegal.

The attorneys wrote: "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."

As for the loss in funding, the attorney said in his response that he did not see that threat as applicable.

In early June, Garcia told CCN his organization had submitted inquiries to the Justice Department and The Attorney General's Office "in an attempt to get more clarity on the situation," but had received no response.

Speaking at the end of 2012, Green Forest Superintendent Matt Summers said the issue had been "dropped," and the threats of litigation never materialized.

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