Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - Front page -

sive train­ing in prepa­ra­tion for July 1, when they will of­fi­cially re­sume the gov­er­nance of their dis­tricts.

“I think I can speak for the en­tire com­mu­nity when I say we are thrilled,” said Lea Ram­sey, a par­ent of a Mid­land High School stu­dent and the leader of an un­prece­dented ef­fort in early 2006 to raise more than $400,000 in do­na­tions to re­tire the dis­trict’s short-term debt and save the dis­trict from an im­me­di­ate state-or­dered con­sol­i­da­tion with a neigh­bor­ing dis­trict.

Ram­sey said in a tele­phone in­ter­view that com­mu­nity mem­bers are be­gin­ning to plan a cel­e­bra­tion day for July.

Ram­sey’s son, Jonathan Far­rar, re­ceived na­tional at­ten­tion when he do­nated to the Mid­land dis­trict the $1,000 he had saved for a trip to see the New York Yan­kees play base­ball. Yan­kees’ owner Ge­orge Stein­bren­ner learned of the 12year-old’s do­na­tion, re­im­bursed him and in­vited him to Yan­kee Sta­dium to see a game. Jonathan is now a ninth-grader at Mid­land High and a first base­man on the school’s var­sity base­ball team.

Ed­u­ca­tion Com­mis­sioner Ken James said Mon­day that his de­part­ment and the state board were crit­i­cized in the past for not in­ter­ven­ing in the af­fairs of mis­man­aged dis­tricts. But changes to state laws now force the de­part­ment to take ac­tion.

“Lo­cal dis­tricts need to run lo­cal dis­tricts, but when they prove for a variety of rea­sons that they can’t do so ... we will not hes­i­tate to take ac­tion, how­ever un­pop­u­lar it hap­pens to be,” James said.

Un­der Act 1467 of the 2003 spe­cial ses­sion on ed­u­ca­tion, a school sys­tem cat­e­go­rized by the state as be­ing in fis­cal dis­tress has up to two years to re­gain fi­nan­cial sta­bil­ity or the Board of Ed­u­ca­tion must con­sol­i­date the dis­trict with a fi­nan­cially stable dis­trict.

The Helena-West Helena School Dis­trict on Sept. 8, 2005, be­came the first dis­trict to have the state take over its op­er­a­tions un­der the Om­nibus Qual­ity Ed­u­ca­tion Act. Ru­dolph Howard, a for­mer prin­ci­pal at Lit­tle Rock Cen­tral High School, was in­stalled by the state as su­per­in­ten­dent. At the time of the takeover, the dis­trict had a pro­jected end­ing neg­a­tive bal­ance in 2006 of $2.3 mil­lion.

Since then, the 2,714-stu­dent dis­trict has over­hauled pur­chas­ing, in­ven­tory, pay­roll and ac­count­ing sys­tems. School board mem­bers were trained. The dis­trict’s pro­jected end­ing bal­ance for this school year is $5.7 mil­lion.

James said the fis­cal con­di­tion of the dis­trict be­fore state takeover was one of the big­gest ex­am­ples of “mis­man­age­ment and malfea­sance” that he had ever seen.

But now the sit­u­a­tion is bet­ter.

“We think the board is ready to have the op­por­tu­nity to as­sume con­trol of the school dis­trict and move for­ward,” he said. “We’ll con­tinue to mon­i­tor it very closely.”

Howard, the state-ap­pointed su­per­in­ten­dent who is now a can­di­date for the per­ma­nent job, said the dis­trict’s books are in or­der and lead­ers can fully fo­cus on im­prov­ing aca­demics.

“We know where we need to be, but for the first time, all the el­e­men­tary schools in the He­le­naWest Helena School Dis­trict have made AYP,” he said, re­fer­ring to a fed­eral law that re­quires each school to demon­strate “ad­e­quate yearly progress” in stu­dent aca­demic achieve­ment.

The Mid­land dis­trict was taken over by the state on Jan. 13, 2006. The 561-stu­dent dis­trict had a neg­a­tive bal­ance of $190,000 in its op­er­at­ing fund at the end of 2004-05.

James ap­pointed a re­tired su­per­in­ten­dent, Charles Von­dran, to lead the dis­trict. He was later re­placed by Lynn Roe King.

The de­part­ment had rec­om­mended that the dis­trict be merged with a neigh­bor­ing dis­trict. But af­ter the com­mu­nity’s fundrais­ing ef­forts, the state board al­lowed the dis­trict to con­tinue to ex­ist but un­der state di­rec­tion.

Since then, the dis­trict has re­duced the num­ber of cer­ti­fied and non­cer­ti­fied po­si­tions and has taken steps to cut other costs in ar­eas such as util­i­ties, trans­porta­tion, sub­sti­tute teach­ing and cus­to­dial sup­plies. The dis­trict is ex­pected to end this year with $1.6 mil­lion in its op­er­at­ing fund.

The Hughes, Omaha and Tur­rell dis­tricts were re­moved from the fis­cal dis­tress list Mon­day af­ter prov­ing to the state board that they had a han­dle on spend­ing. All three were put on the list in 2006 and were re­quired to ad­here to fi­nan­cial im­prove­ment plans that they sub­mit­ted to the state.

The Hughes School Dis­trict, in St. Francis County, had avail­able op­er­at­ing funds of only $14,867 in April 2006. The fi­nan­cial prob­lems have been ag­gra­vated by de­clin­ing stu­dent en­roll­ment, which dropped from about 721 in 2003-04 to 531 in 2006-07.

Re­tired ad­min­is­tra­tor Charles Jones re­turned to help the dis­trict pass a prop­erty-tax in­crease of 12 mills. The dis­trict sold nearly 400 acres of land and three houses, closed a school build­ing and a sec­tion of the high school, cut eight teach­ing po­si­tions and 14 non­teach­ing po­si­tions. It cut back paid work days, teacher ben­e­fits and ad­min­is­tra­tive ben­e­fits.

The dis­trict is ex­pected to end the year with a bal­ance of $1.3 mil­lion.

The Omaha dis­trict, in Boone County, had about $25,644 in un­re­stricted rev­enue to work with in March 2006. The 435-stu­dent dis­trict now has a pro­jected end of year bal­ance this year of $382,771. The dis­trict took steps such as cut­ting po­si­tions, fill­ing va­cant po­si­tions with less ex­pe­ri­enced per­son­nel, us­ing dis­tance learn­ing sys­tems to teach Span­ish and elim­i­nat­ing em­ployee den­tal in­sur­ance.

The Tur­rell dis­trict, in Crit­ten­den County, sim­i­larly elim­i­nated po­si­tions and re­duced health ben­e­fits, cut trans­porta­tion and util­ity costs and lim­ited use of out­side con­trac­tors. The dis­trict also plans to sell two school dis­trict-owned houses. The 317-stu­dent dis­trict is ex­pected to end this school year with an op­er­at­ing bal­ance of $409,907.

Of the eight dis­tricts that the state Ed­u­ca­tion De­part­ment rec­om­mended for place­ment on fis­cal dis­tress, four ap­pealed: Gen­try, Green­land, Min­eral Springs and West­side. The board de­nied each ap­peal, ex­cept for Min­eral Springs, which was tabled un­til the board’s reg­u­lar meet­ing in May.

In the Gen­try School Dis­trict, the state said the dis­trict has used cash-flow loans to cover ex­penses twice since the 2004-05 school year. The dis­trict an­tic­i­pates an­other loan for the 2009-2010 year af­ter end­ing this year with a pro­jected neg­a­tive bal­ance of $254,225. The North­west Arkansas dis­trict has a stable en­roll­ment, mean­ing it should not lose state fund­ing.

Gen­try Su­per­in­ten­dent Randy Bar­rett said that in the past sev­eral years the dis­trict has re­placed a sub­stan­dard school build­ing and added class­rooms to Gen­try High School. It paid for it with con­struc­tion bonds and state aid but had to use op­er­at­ing money to fully fur­nish parts of the build­ing that the school board de­cided to ex­pand af­ter the projects were started, he said.

Scott Smith, the ed­u­ca­tion de­part­ment’s at­tor­ney, said state law al­lows the dis­trict to do that. But Gen­try never re­plen­ished the op­er­at­ing re­serves used to fur­nish the build­ings, he said.

Green­land School Board Pres­i­dent Bill Groom at­trib­uted much of his dis­trict’s fi­nan­cial prob­lems — in­clud­ing its need for short-term loans — to that dis­trict’s ac­qui­si­tion in 2004 of the tiny Winslow School Dis­trict. The dis­trict has since closed both the el­e­men­tary and high school in Winslow, prompt­ing as many as 178 for­mer Winslow stu­dents to trans­fer to schools out­side the Green­land dis­trict at a loss to the Green­land dis­trict of about $1 mil­lion.

To help off­set its fi­nan­cial woes, the 934-stu­dent Green­land dis­trict is seek­ing a 2.64-mill tax in­crease at a spe­cial elec­tion June 10.

The West­side dis­trict had un­re­stricted op­er­at­ing rev­enue of $1.7 mil­lion in 2005, an amount that dropped to $218,000 by 2007.

West­side School Su­per­in­ten­dent James Best ar­gued that his Jones­boro-area dis­trict is cop­ing with en­roll­ment de­creases by cut­ting po­si­tions in dis­trict staff and will show an in­crease in rev­enue at the end of this year. He said his dis­trict, which is rec­og­nized for aca­demic achieve­ments, hasn’t re­sorted to bor­row­ing money and has no au­dit find­ings of fi­nan­cial ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties. He warned that the fis­cal dis­tress des­ig­na­tion will cause the dis­trict’s en­roll­ment to drop fur­ther.

The 1,636-stu­dent dis­trict re­cently ob­served the 10th an­niver­sary of the 1998 shoot­ing by two stu­dents who killed four class­mates and a teacher. Best said the dis­trict con­tin­ues to strug­gle against the per­cep­tion that the dis­trict’s schools are un­safe.

Con­cord has a pro­jected end­ing bal­ance of $148,510 this June.

Hartford’s three years of de­clin­ing end­ing bal­ances will lead to a low of $156,170 this year, state of­fi­cials said.

Her­mitage’s end of year un­re­stricted bal­ances have dropped from $896,207 in 2004-05 to $77,000 last year.

Murfrees­boro’s un­re­stricted bal­ances dropped from $499,820 in 2004-05 to $256,842 last year.

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