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Census Requires Zoned Positions For Farmington, PG School Boards

by Lynn Kutter | September 22, 2021 at 12:03 p.m.

FARMINGTON -- Farmington and Prairie Grove school districts will have to change the way they elect their school board members next year because the 2020 census shows each now has at least a 10% minority population.

Jeff Hawkins, director of the Northwest Arkansas Planning Commission, said a 1993 state law says a school district cannot elect all its board members in at-large elections if the total population has more than a 10% minority.

Lincoln School Board already elects all five members through zones and made the change from at-large members to elections by zones about 10 years ago, based on the 2010 census.

Hawkins said minority does not just refer to race. The state defines minority as anyone who is Hispanic or Latino, Black or African America, American Indian, Asian or Pacific Island.

Data from the 2020 census shows that Farmington School District has a total population of 13,068 for all residents within its school boundaries. Of this, 10,503 are "white alone." Of the total population, Farmington School District has a 19.6% minority population.

Prairie Grove School District has a total population of 12,665 within its district boundaries, with 10,426 people listed as "white alone." The district has a 17.6% minority population, according to the 2020 census report.

Presently, members of both school boards are elected to at-large positions with all registered voters given the opportunity to vote on all positions.

But now these positions will have to move to elections by zones, Hawkins said. The candidate for office will have to live within the boundaries of the zone, and only registered voters living in the zone will be able to vote for any of the candidates running for the zoned position.

The boards have several options, Hawkins said. They can choose to have five zoned positions, seven zoned positions or five zoned positions plus two at-large positions. Someone running for an at-large position can live anywhere within the school boundaries and all registered voters in the district can vote for at-large candidates.

Prairie Grove School Board already made its choice at its Aug. 17 meeting. The board, which currently has seven at-large positions, voted to go with five zoned positions and two at-large positions.

All board members' names were placed in a hat to determine which of the positions would be considered at-large. Assistant Superintendent David Kellogg drew out the names of Casie Ruland and William Dick, which means those positions will be at-large members.

Hawkins said his office has taken the census information and district boundaries and is drawing up the zones. His office also has the addresses for all current members and will take those into consideration.

Hawkins said the zones have to be substantially equal by total population, not voting age population. The commission will follow redistricting principles, taking into consideration where the current board members live.

"That's not a definite rule, but as a practical matter, those people have been elected and you don't want to redistrict someone out of office, if you can help it," Hawkins said, adding, "If there's a way to draw those and still comply with a majority of the principles of redistricting, then that's what we'll do."

Hawkins said when drawing boundary lines for the different school board zones, there should not be a deviation of more than 10% in population from the largest zone to the smallest zone.

"We'll try to keep them compact so they don't end up with odd shapes," he said.

Last week, Hawkins said his office already has finished with a preliminary plan for Farmington School Board, which presently has five at-large positions. The commission is proposing five zoned positions. Three of the zones have one current board member. One zone has two board members residing in it and the fifth zone does not have any board members living in it.

Two of the board members, Travis Warren and Jeff Oxford, live in the same census block and there was not a way to draw a plan without having them both in the same zone, Hawkins said.

This plan will go to the school board for its consideration, and the board can decide to accept it or ask for another proposal, Hawkins said.

The next step, Hawkins said last week, will be to work on a proposal for Prairie Grove's school board zones.

School boards will have to pass a resolution and approve its zones before a Dec. 1 deadline, according to Jennifer Price with the Washington County Election Commission.

After the election commission approves the zones, the information next goes to the Washington County Clerk's office, which will have the responsibility to decide about election precincts and send out updated information to all registered voters for school zones and justice of the peace districts.

"Really, the county clerk's office has the big bulk of the work," Price said.

Lucas Harder, policy services director with Arkansas School Board Association, sent out a memorandum to school officials earlier this year to help answer some questions about the law and the process.

During a phone interview last week, Harder said that once zones are finalized, all zoned positions for Farmington and Prairie Grove school boards will be up for election. The exception will be those who would continue as at-large board members.

Elections for Prairie Grove and Farmington school boards will be on the May 24 primary election ballot.

After that election is certified by the election commission, then the board members will draw lots to set their terms so that no more than two positions are up for election in any subsequent year, Harder said.

Harder said he did not know if all of the Lincoln School Board members would have to run again. That would be a question for its legal counsel based on any changes to the zoning boundary lines because of the census and any exemptions allowed, Harder said.

Along with Farmington and Prairie Grove, West Fork and Elkins also will have to change their school boards from at-large positions to electing board members by zones. All the other school districts in Washington County already have election by zone.

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