The state Board of Education voted unanimously today to remove the Pulaski County Special School District from fiscal distress effective on election and training of a new local school board. State Education Commissioner Johnny Key said he expects that to happen before the end of the 2016 calendar year.
There was little discussion before the vote. PCSSD was put under state control in September 2013. Jerry Guess was named as superintendent to report to the state education commissioner. The elected school board was abolished, as were contracts covering teachers and support workers.
PCSSD remains under federal court supervision for failure to achieve several remaining goals in a desegregation lawsuit. Guess reminded the board today that PCSSD is still not declared unitary in five areas — student discipline, academics, facilities, staffing and monitoring. The deseg suit delays any talk of altering district boundaries in Pulaski County, something the state board has said might be desirable. PCSSD covers a doughnut-shaped part of Pulaski County, with the hole being North Little Rock and a big part of Little Rock. Recently, a new district was carved out of the PCSSD to form the Jacksonville – North Pulaski School District.
Commissioner Key noted that, “this recommendation certainly does not diminish the challenges that [PCSSD] faces … in regards to the Jacksonville / North Pulaski detachment and the desegregation obligations.”
The state board expressed much appreciation to Superintendent Guess. “I just want to say I think we owe you a huge debt,” board member Vicki Saviers told him. “You’ve done an amazing job, and I can’t imagine anyone else doing a better job.”
It’s important to note, though, that once PCSSD returns to local control, there’s no guarantee how long Guess will remain as superintendent. Board member Diane Zook said, “We renewed his contract …. do we have any assurance that he will stay under the new board?”
“There are no guarantees on that, Ms. Zook,” Key told her. “When a board is elected and seated, they have the authority to make those decisions.”
The Helena-West Helena School District also was voted off the fiscal distress list this morning by a unanimous vote.
Andrew Bagley, who chairs the nonvoting advisory board for the HWH district, said every member of that body intends to run for election when voters select a new elected board this fall. “Helena-West Helena is ready,” he said. “I am more optimistic about our ability to run these schools than I have been in 20 years. We look forward to getting our schools back in the hands of our community. … We will not let the scarlet ‘F’ of fiscal distress be placed on our forehead ever again.”
Board member Jay Barth asked for the Education Department’s committee on academic distress to deliver a report by June on the district’s situation, “so that we have real confidence that the trajectory is right in terms of academic achievement in this district. … Although the fiscal house is in order, there are still some major achievement issues in this district.”
The HWH district will achieve full independence upon election of its local board in November. (Most school elections take place in September, not November, but HWH is electing to hold its vote on the later date.)