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— DECATUR - School employees and community members expressed frustration at Monday's town hall meeting about the Gentry School District's policy of sending buses inside the Decatur School District to pick up students who have filed school choice forms.

Gentry has sent buses into the Decatur School District to pick up students in the past, but the situation came to the public's attention when a Gentry school bus accidentally picked up two Decatur students during the first few weeks of school.

The mother of the Decatur students quickly realized the mistake and called the students on their cell phone.

The bus driver stopped and allowed the students to get off the bus and into their mother's car.

Both districts are in fiscal distress and each student brings in $6,000 of state funding.

Decatur bus driver Charles Linam said he was very pleased with Decatur's financial progress but concerned about the declining enrollment figures - the schools enrollment was 486 on Friday, down 10 students from this time last year - especially since Gentry's buses are coming into Decatur to pick up students.

"Its unethical of the superintendent to allow it, its unethical of the transportation manager to order it, and its unethical of the driver to do it," Charles Linam said.

"Unethical maybe, illegal no," Ortman replied.

"Just say it doesn't seem right," Tasha Linam said.

Special programs coordinator Bobby King said he spoke to Mike Simmons, head of transportation for the state, and learned that according to Arkansas Code 618-208 schools can provide transportation to students in other districts that have filled out school choice forms.

"If they wanted to pick up students in Gravette they could do it," Ortman said.

"They could go to the Main Street of Gravette and pick up a kid if they wanted to," he said in response to the complaints that Gentry buses come very close to the Decatur city limits.

Ortman said the school choice laws were enacted while he was serving as superintendent of the Gravette School District. He said that from a personal stand point, he decided not to go one foot into another school district because, "Where do you stop?" he said.

"If I was desperate for enrollment, would I have acted differently? I would like to think not, but maybe I would have," he said.

"If a parent takes kids out of the district, then they should be responsible for providing transportation," Tasha Linam said.

"The law says the receiving district has the right to provide transportation," Ortman replied.

Community members brought up questions of whether some parents are sending students to other districts without filling out school choice forms. Doug Holly asked if there was any way to find out if students were filling out the required forms, and Ortman promised to look into it.

Linam asked Ortman if he could write a letter to Gentry's superintendent asking the district to stop sending buses into Decatur. Ortman said he has spoken to Gentry's superintendent about the issue on several occasions and suggested the best way to handle it would be for those who were unhappy to appear before Gentry's school board.

"It is a bad situation and I know people are provoked," Ortman said.

"The other thing you have to remember is: 'Should we prevail now, you have people coming back to school that don't want to be here,' and I'm not sure that's a good thing either," Ortman said.

News, Pages 8 on 09/23/2009

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