LITTLE ROCK — The major-party candidates for governor both said during a debate Monday they are open to amending a state law that requires mandatory consolidation or annexation of public school districts that fall below 350 students for two consecutive years.

LITTLE ROCK — The major-party candidates for governor both said during a debate Monday they are open to amending a state law that requires mandatory consolidation or annexation of public school districts that fall below 350 students for two consecutive years.


Republican Asa Hutchinson and Democrat Mike Ross met on the Arkansas State University campus in Jonesboro for an hour-long debate that was broadcast live on television station KAIT’s digital channel and public radio station KASU-FM and was streamed on KAIT’s website. The candidates also wrangled over issues such as partisanship and out-of-state money.


Responding to a question about school consolidation, Ross said he thought it was "a mistake" when former Gov. Mike Huckabee pushed for legislation that led to the consolidation of many small districts.


"I think you should measure education based on quality rather than quantity, and some of the schools that have been closed are too far from another school. … I can tell you that I’d be receptive to reviewing legislation to try to stop some of these schools from closing, especially those in rural areas that require young people to spend way too much time riding a school bus," he said.


Hutchinson said he would support legislation to allow small districts to obtain a waiver from the law if they are performing well academically and are financially sound.


"There was a new study that was completed which showed that in some school districts, students are on the bus for 5 1/2 hours," he said. "That is unacceptable. Bus transportation, the length of transportation, has to be a factor to be considered when you’re looking at that magical number of 350 and what happens whenever you close it, including what happens to the community as well."


Ross, a former 4th District congressman, said he has a history of being bipartisan and has opposed his party on issues such as the Affordable Care Act and cap and trade. He accused Hutchinson of being "hyper-partisan" and said he voted against raising the federal minimum wage, against workforce education programs and against student loan programs.


"He even signed a letter trying to privatize Social Security. Those aren’t bipartisan votes. Those are partisan votes that hurt middle-class families in Arkansas," Ross said.


Hutchinson, a former 3rd District congressman, said he worked with Democrats in Congress on legislation on campaign finance reform and privacy and received Democratic support when Republican President George W. Bush appointed him as administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration. He also said he supports raising the state minimum wage and has a plan for enhancing vocational education.


"Surely you can do better than the old liberal mantra of attacking every Republican because they’re going to hurt Social Security, Mr. Ross," Hutchinson said. "That is so old school. Yes, I want to protect Social Security. I’ve always wanted to protect it, to secure that fund as well as Medicare."


Hutchinson chided Ross for a statement he made in a previous debate that people who do not live in Arkansas should not be able to contribute to Arkansas candidates for governor or any other state office.


"You’ve raised almost $800,000 out of state from over 30 states in our Union. … If you don’t think you should be receiving out-of-state money, I call upon you to return that money," Hutchinson said.


Ross said 90 percent of his donations have come from "hard-working Arkansans" and said Hutchinson has done nothing to stop the Republican Governors Association from running ads "attacking my wife, a pharmacist, for selling our family pharmacy for a profit in the United States of America."


"Congressman Hutchinson, you owe my wife an apology right here, right now," Ross said.


Hutchinson replied, "It was Mr. Ross who sanctimoniously said we ought to stop out-of-state money coming in to influence the governor’s race. … I’m not the one saying that."


Also running for governor are Green party candidate Joshua Drake and Libertarian Frank Gilbert, who were not part of Monday’s debate.


Early voting began Monday for the Nov. 4 election.