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The superintendent of the Earle School District, which was taken over by the state in November because of dire financial straits, asked the state Board of Education on Thursday for patience as the school system corrects its academic and money woes.

"This is going to be a three-to-five-year process," said Richard Wilde, the former Department of Education school improvement unit officer appointed as the Earle district chief executive.

He described tasks that need to be accomplished, including the creation of a vision on what graduates should be able to do to be prepared for college and careers; budgeting around that vision; replacing the dilapidated elementary school building; correcting noncompliance issues in special education and federal funding; and recruiting, training and supporting staff members-- many of whom are in their first year of teaching.

He said he wants a sense of urgency about the work in the district, but not chaos.

"We hope that you won't be putting pressure on the commissioner to say 'Let's get them back under local control,'" Wilde told the board. "We are embracing local control. We have everyone from the City Council engaged to the previous school board to students. We are getting local control back -- just not in the formal sense."

Wilde made his presentation at an Education Board meeting Thursday that focused largely on the status of the three school districts -- out of 238 traditional systems -- that are operating under state authority and without locally elected school boards: Earle, Dollarway and Little Rock. The superintendents in the three districts all report to state Education Commissioner Johnny Key.

The 600-student Earle district in Crittenden County lost local control in November, the most recent instance of a state takeover.

Cindy Smith, the Education Department's fiscal and support-services coordinator, said the district last October had appeared to be in good shape, with a projected end-of-school year balance of more than $674,000. But that amount was overstated by about $300,000, Smith said. "That's really hard to overcome automatically."

"Earle should be a fun place to be," Smith said. "It was a scary and sad place to be when we first walked in," although she also said the students were extremely well mannered. "Now you can see a change when you walk in. Everyone has a smile."

The district's privately completed 2016 audit showed that the district had no documents on purchases; a one-person business office; salaries paid from inappropriate funds; credit cards being used by anyone and everyone for everything; inadequate insurance coverage; federal funds not spent on allowable costs; and "boxes and boxes of written checks" to vendors that were never mailed. By December 2017, the unpaid vendor bills reached $1 million.

The district also was paying for 40 landline phones, Smith said, half of which did not work. There were 21 district cellphones, the holders of which took months to identify and sometimes no longer worked for the school system.

"It was amazing some of the things they found [in the most recent audit done by the state.] I encourage all of you to go and read it because we never want this to happen in another school district," Smith said.

She said the district is working to pay vendors and return misspent money.

There has been progress in the form of new computers and Chromebooks for students to replace computers that used outdated floppy discs, she said.

Training is underway in the district's business office with plans to return about half of the responsibilities back to that office by the start of the next school year but will hold back payroll and other staffing-related record-keeping to ensure capabilities.

"We want them to be a good example of what a district can be even if they come from that point," she said.

State Education Board members were complimentary of the work in Earle.

Board Chairman Jay Barth said he was glad efforts were being made to sustain the corrections over time.

Board member Diane Zook called the report "just excellent" in part because of the clear and measurable objectives being established for the system.

Later Zook told Dollarway Superintendent Barbara Warren that she should consider some of what the Earle district is doing as the 1,200-student Dollarway district is not progressing fast enough in terms of student achievement.

"As a member of the state Board of Education, I feel responsible for ensuring that students get what they need,"

Zook told Warren, who then told the board about her district's emphasis on reading.

"I will have better news for you," assured Warren after telling how she wept upon receiving the F letter grades for her three campuses.

The state issued letter grades to all schools last month to reflect a school's achievement, achievement growth and student success characteristics.

Mike Poore, superintendent of the Little Rock School District -- which has been under state control since January 2015 -- answered questions from the board about expansion and available space for the district's growing pre-kindergarten programs and about Hall High School, which was one of the six out of 44 schools in the district to receive an F from the state a few weeks ago.

Poore and Key praised Mark Roberts, the Hall principal who in his first year at the campus has led efforts to emphasize reading and writing across the curriculum and to curb discipline problems. That is happening as the school moves to become a school of innovation -- a term used by the state to encourage new ideas -- and as a new high school is being built in the southwest part of the city that will result in new attendance zone boundaries for Hall by 2020.

Both the Dollarway and the 24,000-student Little Rock district are now labeled as Level 5 districts under new state and federal accountability plans.

Mike Hernandez, state superintendent of coordinated support services, suggested in an interview that future quarterly reports to the Legislature from the Level 5 districts will discontinue focusing on individual struggling schools and take into account all schools in a system.

Both Little Rock and Dollarway districts are obligated by the accountability system to submit district support plans to the state in September. That will be after the individual school improvement plans are submitted to the districts this spring.

The Level 5 districts and districts such as Earle that are identified as being in fiscal distress, can expect comprehensive help instead of a focus on finances or curriculum.

"If districts have problems with academics and or finances, those are symptoms of larger system problems," Hernandez said. "We're trying to attack it on all fronts; thinking about things like stakeholder engagement, human capital or academic facilities, too. We try to take all those things into context as we try to to leave the place better."

Metro on 05/11/2018

Print Headline: Head of Earle schools asks state for patience; Fixing numerous woes to take years, he says

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