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UPDATE: More problems found in Helena-West Helena schools

By Nomaan Merchant, The Associated Press

This article was originally published July 11, 2011 at 12:52 p.m. Updated July 11, 2011 at 6:06 p.m.

Arkansas Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell said Monday that more problems have been discovered at an eastern Arkansas school district in the weeks since he fired the district’s superintendent and dissolved its school board.

The Helena-West Helena School District, one of two taken over by the state June 20, had not finished teacher and staff contracts for the upcoming school year, Kimbrell told a meeting of the Arkansas State Board of Education. Students didn’t have class schedules, and many weren’t on track to graduate and will need remedial classes, he said.

Under state supervision, the 2,300-student district has moved forward on contracts and established class schedules, he said.

Kimbrell’s takeovers of Helena-West Helena and the Pulaski County Special School District in central Arkansas have been controversial. U.S. District Judge Brian Miller, who was overseeing a desegregation funding lawsuit involving Pulaski County and two other school districts, said he would recuse himself from the case due to what he said were his “deeply held personal opinions” about the Helena-West Helena takeover.

Willie Williams, the former Helena-West Helena superintendent, said in an interview Monday that some of Kimbrell’s complaints didn’t take into account years of troubles within the district, including an earlier takeover that ended in 2008.

Teacher and staff contracts were delayed because the state placed the district under its “fiscal distress” label, the precursor to a takeover, Williams said.

“The truth of the matter is, they’re going to make it sound like anything they want to,” he said. “We did everything we thought we were supposed to.”

Kimbrell appointed Suzann McCommon, the director of a regional cooperative and a former teacher in the district, to serve as chief executive officer.

Williams, who became superintendent in 2009, one year after the first takeover ended, said he contacted the state three months after taking the job because he was “uncomfortable with the finances.”

“These things have been going on for years, and it needs to be fixed, and that’s what I was seeking to do,” Williams said. “The district needs a complete overhaul. I just hope it’s fixed.”

At Monday’s meeting, Kimbrell said he would ask for legislative audits of both Helena-West Helena and Pulaski County. State officials also will create an advisory board to help Pulaski County’s new superintendent, Jerry Guess.

Guess will continue to report directly to Kimbrell, who has been dubbed a “one-man school board” for both districts under the takeover.

The education board also separately voted to keep the Armorel School District in northeast Arkansas and Cutter-Morning Star High School in Hot Springs on probation. Armorel did not meet a state guideline of having at least one full-time counselor for its approximately 450 students. Cutter-Morning Star used two teachers who didn’t have proper licensing.

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