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Jeremy Owoh, an Arkansas Department of Education assistant commissioner for the past year, is the newly appointed superintendent of the Pine Bluff School District, which the state took over earlier in the week because of financial problems.

Arkansas Education Commissioner Johnny Key announced his selection of Owoh at a Friday morning meeting of the state Board of Education.

Key described Owoh, 39, the state's assistant commissioner for educator effectiveness and licensure and a former high school principal and assistant superintendent, as "definitely well prepared to take on the challenge and we are certainly looking forward to hearing of his leadership success."

In an interview later, Key elaborated, noting that Owoh had been an assistant superintendent for the Jacksonville/North Pulaski School District at the time that district was being carved out of the Pulaski County Special district.

"He's tackled some very difficult situations and, frankly, Pine Bluff is going to be a very difficult situation," Key said. "He was ready. He actually came to me and said if the state board does something like this [take over the Pine Bluff district], 'I would be interested.' On visiting with him and considering all of his experience, he's a good choice."

Owoh said Friday afternoon that he was interested in the Pine Bluff job because he has missed working with students, teachers and parents and because the Pine Bluff district has similarities to the Jacksonville/North Pulaski district in terms of size and challenges.

"I'm all in for the challenge and the work, and I'm excited about the days and years to come in really changing the trajectory of the school district and the community," he said.

Key will continue to be Owoh's boss. That's because the state Education Board voted Thursday to not only classify the district as being in fiscal distress but also to dismiss the School Board and the interim superintendent, making Key the de facto school board and the person to whom Owoh will report.

This is the second time Key has appointed a member of his agency staff to head a state-controlled district. Richard Wilde, a 42-year veteran educator, is the superintendent of the state-controlled Earle School District. Wilde had headed the state agency's school improvement office.

In addition to Pine Bluff and Earle, the state is in control of the Little Rock School District and the Dollarway School District. Dollarway, like Pine Bluff, is in Jefferson County.

A contract signed Friday by Key and Owoh to be effective Monday calls for Owoh to be the Pine Bluff superintendent for the 2018-19 school year at a district-paid salary of $132,458.33. He will be provided with an automobile and necessary technology, plus memberships in various city and education organizations.

Owoh said Friday from Pine Bluff that he will spend the time early on meeting with faculty, parents and students so he and they can all get to know one another, after which they will develop action plans.

"It's a great opportunity and I look forward to it and to working with all key people," he said. "The main objective is to ensure that our students have the very best education possible and that they are prepared after 12th grade for college and careers and to be really engaged citizens. I also want to make sure our educators have the skills they need to meet the needs of our students and that the parents are engaged in the education process."

Owoh has held several positions in Pulaski County-area school districts. Before serving as an assistant superintendent of curriculum/instruction and desegregation in the Jacksonville/North Pulaski district for two years, Owoh was principal at Little Rock's J.A. Fair High School for four years; Pulaski County Special's Fuller Middle School for one year; and assistant principal at North Little Rock's Ridgeroad Middle school for one year.

He also served stints as dean of students at Pulaski County Special's Mills University Studies High. He started his teacher career as an English teacher at Little Rock's Parkview Magnet High School, where he worked from 2003 to 2008.

The Camden native has a degree in English education from the University of Central Arkansas, a master's degree in secondary education and a doctorate in educational administration from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, as well as a doctorate in administrative leadership from Walden University.

Owoh, who left for Pine Bluff immediately after Key's announcement, replaces Michael Robinson Jr., who worked for two years as superintendent in Pine Bluff. The School Board in June bought out Robinson's contract, at Robinson's request, earlier this summer for $50,000 plus health and dental insurance benefits through December.

Robinson had joined Pine Bluff's school system after holding various positions in the Prince George's County public schools in Maryland. He also worked earlier in the metropolitan Atlanta public schools and in schools in Texas and Louisiana, which is his home state.

The superintendent buyout came at the end of a year in which the Pine Bluff district's schools received three D's and four F's as the result of the state's revised letter grading system for schools that takes into account achievement and academic improvement over time on the annual ACT Aspire exams.

The board ultimately appointed Monica McMurray, executive director of learning services, to be interim superintendent. In the wake of the state takeover, McMurray will now return to her earlier job.

On Thursday, state Education Department finance officers described for the state Education Board a Pine Bluff district that they had tried to help but was spending income and surpluses from previous years at a rate that would leave the district without sufficient cash flow to cover employee paychecks by April and, by the end the school year, could be in the red by as much as $2 million.

The problems stem in part from yearly declines in student enrollment, which reduce state funding to a school district in the following school year. The district lost 1,552 students between the 2007-08 and 2017-18 school years, falling from 5,200 to 3,648.

The enrollment count dropped by 264 between the 2016-17 and 2017-18 school year, alone.

Other issues affecting the district's finances included efforts to maintain aging campuses and provide pay increases to at least some employees including administrators. Further, the district owes money to the IRS and to parties in at least one lawsuit against the district. The district deferred payment of 2017-18 bills to this 2018-19 school year, which also taxes the financial well being of the school district.

Ryan L. Watley, chief executive officer of the Go Forward Pine Bluff organization, told the state Education Board before its vote to take control of the district that his organization of civic and business people had no confidence in the locally elected School Board's capacity to navigate the financial challenges.

"All factors considered, a state of emergency must be declared," he said in asking that state officials exercise their full powers to intervene in the operation of the district.

On Friday, Watley said he was looking forward to working with Owoh, whom he does not know. He took as a good sign the fact that Owoh has done some recent work with a youth organization in Jefferson County.

"We just want to welcome him to Pine Bluff and hope we can get some stability in the district," Watley said.

Photo by handout
Dr. Jeremy Owoh

A Section on 09/15/2018

Print Headline: Key picks Pine Bluff schools' new chief


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