Leader Blues

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

EDITORIALS>>Judge sees the light

It does not speak especially well for judicial reflection, but Pulaski Circuit Judge Jay Moody reversed himself yesterday afternoon and ruled that the Bryant School District could close the little Paron High School immediately and educate the youngsters in schools that can offer them more education for much less of the taxpayers’ money.

Only four days earlier, Judge Moody had for the second time ordered Bryant not to close the country high school and to start classes there on Monday. He enjoined both the Bryant School District and the state Board of Education, both of which had concluded that the school had to close. The trouble was that the school had no teachers and many of the youngsters already planned to go to other high schools.

Monday, Judge Moody and the people of Paron were confronted with images of students milling about an abandoned school with no teachers and the prospect of a chaotic school year in which only the most meager education would be imparted.

Tuesday afternoon, the judge lifted the injunction so that the education planned by the Bryant district could proceed.

Judge Moody ruled that the state Board of Education had complied with the state Administrative Procedures Act when it approved the closing of the school, so there was no need for the injunction or a further trial on the point. That was obvious all along, but there was too much politics and too much friendship to let the law prevail. We cannot say why the judge changed his mind so abruptly, only cheer it. It may have been the realization of what had been done to the children of the community or the certainty that the Arkansas Supreme Court would soon reverse him, as it did a couple of weeks earlier.

Paron has become, in the most hackneyed phrase in our lexicon, a political football. Asa Hutchinson hopes to be elected governor on Paron, and Gunner DeLay thinks that it is his ticket to the attorney general’s office. By vowing to use their offices to keep tiny schools like Paron open the Republican candidates are appealing to rural voters who think their way of life is vanishing. The politicians undersell rural voters, but they follow the ancient conventional wisdom in Arkansas that rural people care little about what is taught in the schools but only that school be close and offer competitive athletics.

Paron was caught by the 2003 state law that abolished school districts with fewer than 350 students. The school districts could actually close a high school, for example, if it became necessary for economic or other reasons but it had to first get the approval of the state Board of Education. Bryant found it terribly expensive to operate the little Paron High School and the school’s inability to meet state standards threatened sanctions for Bryant. So it decided to close the school and bring the students to Bryant, and the state Board of Education agreed.

A Paron patron sued and Judge Moody ordered the school to remain open until he could conduct a trial on the question of whether children would have to ride buses too long each day and suffer other unnecessary consequences and whether the state had followed the law in approving the closing.

The Supreme Court hustled into an emergency session, voided the judge’s ruling because Bryant was not even a party to the suit, and rebuked him for exceeding his power. Judge Moody had Bryant added to the suit, held another quick hearing Friday and reinstated his order. Judge Moody heard the harsh judgment of history and decided Tuesday to get it right while he could. Maybe he will help the politicians to see the light.