Arkansas Education Department Director Tom Kimbrell (above) met reporters this afternoon to talk about the state’s decision to take over two school districts today — Helena-West Helena and the Pulaski County Special School District.
Most of the questions from Little Rock reporters were about Pulaski County, the state’s
second- third-largest district with more than 17,000 students. In the brief YouTube clip below, Kimbrell responds to my question about whether the reorganization period is seen as a time to talk about reconfiguring the three public school districts in Pulaski County. Many Jacksonville residents have wanted to secede from the doughnut shaped district. Others have talked about combinations with Little Rock and North Little Rock to create, for example, two districts on either side of the Arkansas River. In short, said Kimbrell, yes, it should be discussed.
Other high points:
* No one factor precipitated the Pulaski takeover. Kimbrell said he certainly gave great weight to wishes of the Legislative Joint Auditing Committee, which recommended the option. But he also referred obliquely to ousted Superintendent Charles Hopson’s seeming statements that he didn’t intend to be guided by Board wishes in some spending decisions. The “tone at the top” is vital, he said, in answer to a question about why the state decided to both oust Hopson and dissolve the school board.
* Hopson’s contract is now null, Kimbrell said. The state has no obligation to pay him.
* I await answers on questions pertaining to validity of hundreds of teacher and administrator contracts and to the professional negotiating agreement with the Pulaski Association of Classroom Teachers. A group from the Arkansas Education Association was on hand for the news conference. They said they had legal staff working on the question of continuing validity of the working agreement, a subject that triggered much of the internal district feuding that ultimately contributed to the district’s dysfunctionality.
UPDATE: Answer from Department spokesman on this: “We’ll be further studying the issue of teachers contract and negotiation with teachers.”
* Kimbrell said children’s interest would come first. (That’s what you always say, one reporter observed.) But he said he was confident school could begin in August as parents had expected in the schools they anticipated to attend. He offered no specifics, however, when asked how officials would cope with the abrupt loss of $10 million in state desegregation aid to the district, a possibility now being contested in court. In an article I linked early, former Superintendent Bobby Lester, who’ll be the interim leader of the district, said that aid never was spent categorically but generally. (Despite Attorney General Dustin McDaniel’s effort to portray otherwise.)
* Lester will likely be only a short-term interim before a another leader is chosen, Kimbrell said.
* State law gives the department two years to bring the district to financial stability before reconstituting the school board at an election. There’s no chance a board will be chosen in this September’s school election.
* Helena-West Helena, in and out of distress in the past, may be worse off than Pulaski County. A number of financial questions are unanswered Kimbrell said. Officials arriving to take over operations were unable to locate a master schedule for the next school year.
* Kimbrell said the takeover of the Pulaski district from Hopson had been orderly.
Pulaski County wasn’t broke financially, but it was broken. This should send a strong message to others. I hope.