Arkansas School Closing Justified, 8th Circ. Ruled

     ST. LOUIS (CN) — An Arkansas school district did not violate a 1992 consent decree and discriminate against black students by closing an elementary school, the Eighth Circuit ruled.
     A group of parents sued the Hamburg School District after the district decided to close Wilmot Elementary School in 2014 due to declining enrollment and population in the City of Wilmot.
     The parents claimed the decision violated a 1992 consent decree that stated the district would run Gifted and Talented Programs for elementary students exclusively at Wilmot. They also argued the no changes justified the closing of Wilmot, which is comprised of primarily black students.
     An Arkansas federal court found in favor of Hamburg. The court cited a major decrease in Wilmot’s population between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, that the data indicated “a consistent downturn in population since the Consent Order was entered” and that the plaintiffs failed to show evidence that the declining population would not continue.
     The court ruled that Wilmot’s population loss “appear[ed] to have prevented Wilmot Elementary from sustaining its enrollment and/or attracting new families with children to the area.”
     In upholding the federal court’s decision, a three-judge panel in the Eighth Circuit examined testimony from Hamburg Superintendent Max Dyson that attendance at Wilmot had declined by more than 50 percent since the 2009-2010 school year, from 102 students to 48 students.
     “While the record lacks data showing Wilmot’s student enrollment at the time of the Consent Order, the aforementioned data shows an approximately 53 percent decline in student enrollment from the 2009—2010 school year to the 2014—2015 school year,” Judge Lavenski R. Smith wrote in Wednesday’s ruling. “This tracks the acceleration in the population decline for the City of Wilmot. Like the population decline, we conclude that the District could not have anticipated the rapid rate of decline in student enrollment at the time that the Consent Order was entered; therefore, this factor contributes to the significant change in circumstances.”
     The appeals court sided with the school district that fiscal and education considerations also supported the school closing.
     Judges Raymond W. Gruender and Duane Benton concurred with Smith.

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