On Friday, the Arkansas State Board of Education received its quarterly reports from three school districts currently under state control due to troubled finances, inferior academic performance or both: Lee County, which was taken over by the state this April, and Pulaski County and Helena-West Helena, which were taken over three years ago. (The board also heard from the Horatio and Strong-Huttig districts, neither of which are currently under state control but are being closely monitored nonetheless.)
Since it was taken over in 2011, the fiscally-distressed Pulaski County Special School District has made significant progress in the eyes of many, including the federal court monitoring the district’s compliance with desegregation orders. On the other hand, said board member Jay Barth, the Helena-West Helena District still faces major challenges. Test scores for HWH, especially at the high school level, remain dismally low. (Barth is a frequent contributor to the Arkansas Times.)
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Since the Arkansas Department of Education (ADE) can retain stewardship of a district for a maximum of five years, that leaves the board with less than two years to turn things around in HWH. What happens then?
“When you look at Pulaski County, it looks like there’s a very clear path to get there, with a lot of hard work,” said Barth. “For a variety of reasons…[Helena-West Helena] looks like a much tougher path, maybe even an impossible task. When we think about the next legislative session — well, five years is five years, statutorily….Where does this go by year five?” He noted that the legislature only recently expanded the window of time that a district can remain under state control, from two years to five years.
ADE Commissioner Tony Wood agreed with Barth that the time limit presents a conundrum. Statute simply mandates that all is made right by ADE within that five year period. Should the state board be given authority to extend that period even further?
“Certainly, given the legal posture, we have to make it a success so it can be returned to local control,” said Wood. “Do we give consideration to approaching the legislative session and asking for a safety valve? There might be a lot of wisdom to that. [But] in some quarters, it will not be received well, at all.”
Wood noted that the state has another option at the end of the five year period: consolidate a distressed district with an adjacent district, or multiple districts. But in the case of districts in the Delta, such as Lee County — which are already painfully spread over too large of a geographic area, yielding unreasonably long bus trips for many students — that might be virtually impossible. “We have districts today that as a practical matter are not candidates for consolidation,” he said.
In a later conversation, Wood clarified that indefinite state control isn’t anyone’s aim. The goal is to put a seized district back under the governance of a local school board. “That’s exactly how I think it should be. I’m a strong supporter of having local control…I was really pleased to see Mineral Springs and Dollarway go back under local control,” he said. Those two districts, which had been previously taken over by the state, were released by the State Board earlier this year.
Yet Helena-West Helena has been here before. It was previously taken over by the state from 2005 to 2008, after which it returned to local control…and was then taken over again in 2011. It does nobody any favors to yo-yo a district back and forth between a local board and the state without first making sure things are sound.
Wood said he was optimistic that John Hoy, the new superintendent in Helena-West Helena appointed by ADE just in July, is capable of making a lot of progress in the coming two years. “He’s putting in tremendous hours and effort. He’s on target in establishing a secure teaching staff that’s stable and remains in the district.” Wood said that Hoy, a veteran educator originally from the Delta, requested the Helena assignment himself.
In Helena, meanwhile, getting out from under the authority of the state can’t come soon enough for some. Andrew Bagley is president of the advisory school board for Helena-West Helena — a body that can issue recommendations but has no decision making power as long as the state remains in control. When I spoke to him this afternoon, he was just wrapping up the HWH homecoming parade.
He said that the district’s finances were now in much better shape than the were in 2011.
“We’re embarrassed we lost local control, and we want it back,” he said. “We ended last year with a balance of over $5 million … Some felt that we could have made an argument for local control before Dr. Kimbrell left ADE [this summer.] But I’m very confident that our schools are fiscally healthy and we’re moving closer to the right track all the time.”
As for academics? “We have made small steps,” said Bagley. “Not as far as we want to go, and I recognize that our high school is in academic distress, but we’ve also made significant improvement in some literacy and math scores. Good things are happening on the academic side — just not fast enough.”
Funding for education reporting provided by the Arkansas Public Policy Panel.