The Pulaski County Special and Helena-West Helena school districts -- under state direction since 2011 because of financial mismanagement and overspending -- have corrected their problems and are eligible to be returned to local control, state officials said this week.
The Arkansas Board of Education is planning to vote at its 10 a.m. meeting next Thursday on recommendations from the state Department of Education staff to remove the fiscal-distress labels from the two districts and return the systems to local control upon the election and training of new school boards.
Annual school board elections in Arkansas are in September.
The state Education Department wrote each district letters about the recommendations.
"This letter is to certify that the Pulaski County Special School District has corrected all criteria for being placed in fiscal distress and completed all activities and strategies as outlined in the District's Fiscal Distress Improvement plan," Cynthia Smith, the department's coordinator for fiscal services and support, wrote in the letter Tuesday to Pulaski County Special district Superintendent Jerry Guess.
Smith wrote a letter with identical phrasing to Helena-West Helena Superintendent John Hoy.
"ADE's recommendation will be to return the district to the control of a locally elected school board, upon the election and training of the new board," Smith continued, then congratulated the districts and encouraged "continued diligence to sustain this improvement."
Andrew Bagley, president of the Helena-West Helena district's Community Advisory Board, welcomed the recommendation but said Wednesday that he won't rest easy until he sees the yeas and nays of the state Education Board vote.
"I think we have earned a return to local control," Bagley said. "Our board, our administration, our staff have all worked very hard to make sure we have taken care of all the problems that resulted in the state takeover in the first place. I believe our community is in a much different place and will support the district in such a way that this will never happen again."
Kimberly Friedman, a spokesman for the Education Department, declined to comment on Wednesday on the department recommendations, saying that to do so before the Education Board's vote next week would be premature.
Through a spokesman for the Pulaski County Special district, Guess said Wednesday that the recommendation for his district was a preliminary step and that any comments about it should come from the Education Department.
Both Hoy and Guess were appointed to their chief executive jobs by the Arkansas education commissioner, who serves in place of the school board in the state-controlled districts and is their supervisor.
Guess, the former superintendent of the Camden Fairview School District, became head of the Pulaski County Special district on July 1, 2011. Hoy, a former assistant commissioner in the Education Department, was appointed to the Helena- West Helena job in 2014, replacing Suzann McCommon, who was initially appointed in 2011 to lead the district with assistance from Ulicious Reed as the chief operating officer.
The state Education Board in February approved the renewal of contracts for Guess and Hoy for the coming 2016-17 school year. The new school boards, if they are approved by the state Education Board, would make subsequent decisions about the employment of superintendents.
Documents sent to the nine-member state Education Board list the actions the Pulaski County Special and Helena-West Helena districts took in recent years to achieve greater financial solvency.
At the time the state took over the Pulaski County Special district -- by dismissing first-year Superintendent Charles Hopson and the seven-member School Board -- the district was the second-largest in the state with 17,500 students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.
The district was marked by highly publicized infighting among board members and employee unions. Additionally, the district had been the focus of an earlier, special Arkansas Legislative Audit investigation that found widespread financial mismanagement, including equipment theft, payment of unallowed expenses and unauthorized overtime payments.
After the state takeover, state and district leaders withdrew contract-negotiating rights from the teacher and support-staff unions, revised policies on school board and employee travel, implemented a districtwide overtime policy, and strengthened bookkeeping and financial-monitoring procedures,.
The district also took other steps, including the the elimination of 77 licensed and support-staff jobs in 2011-12. In 2012-13, the financial-improvement efforts included reducing the cost of salaries by leaving vacancies unfilled, reducing the teacher work year from 192 to 190 days, reducing personnel benefits that were paid above the state minimum requirements, and refinancing a district bond to attain a lower interest rate.
The recommended release of the Pulaski County Special district from fiscal distress and state control comes just as the new Jacksonville/North Pulaski School District is about to separate from the Pulaski County Special district, effective July 1.
Pulaski County Special and Jacksonville/North Pulaski district leaders have been working for months to plan and carry out a separation under which the Pulaski County Special district will lose nine schools, about 4,000 students and nearly 500 employees to the Jacksonville-area district.
The Pulaski County Special district also remains under federal court supervision of some of its desegregation efforts, including its efforts to equalize the condition of its school campuses.
Some of the district's oldest schools are in communities with high percentages of black students. The district is continuing to receive more than $20 million a year in special, state desegregation aid, but that funding will end after the 2017-18 school year.
The district, which has a budget of $180.7 million this school year, projects it will end the school year with close to $19 million in unrestricted reserves, according to Education Department documents.
The Helena-West Helena district was labeled as fiscally distressed in September 2010 for declining balances that jeopardized the fiscal integrity of the district and for violations found in audit findings. The state took over the 1,886-student district in June 2011, dismissing Superintendent Willie Williams and the elected School Board.
The district ended the 2010-11 school year with $3.5 million on hand, but that was possible only because the district was able to use American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds (known nationally as federal stimulus funding) for about $2.7 million in salaries, according to documents provided to the Education Board.
In subsequent years, the district consolidated its campuses from five to three and has eliminated dozens of jobs and employees. In 2011-12, the district eliminated 27 licensed teaching positions and 54 classified or support-staff positions to save money and to adjust for the loss of student enrollment. In 2012-13, 30 more employee jobs were eliminated.
The district now has about 1,500 students and $11.8 million in revenue this year. The district started this school year with $6.23 million in unrestricted reserves funds and is projected to end the year with almost $6.3 million in balances.
Bagley, the Community Advisory Board president, said he believes that the district is on "very sound financial footing.
"We've taken the steps necessary. Some were very unpopular over the last five years. We've closed schools. We've reduced staff and we've continued to reduce staff as enrollment has declined," he said.
The district will break ground next week on an addition to its J.F. Wahl campus so that when it is completed in 2017, the district will have just two campuses -- an elementary school and high school.
Bagley said he plans to run for election to the school board if the state Education Board approves the proposed return of the district to local control. He also expects the other six members of the advisory board to do the same.
"It's my hope that this community will elect all seven because this group is working very hard and very well together and have shown a lot of courage to make some very tough choices."
A Section on 03/03/2016
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