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OPINION | EDITORIAL: Dollarway decision near

by The Pine Bluff Commercial | December 6, 2020 at 9:55 a.m.

It's looking like the end of the line for the Dollarway School District.

On Dec. 10, the state Board of Education will announce its decision as to what to do with the district.

As we've said, it's hardly an easy decision, but it may have been made easier, what with the lack of any significant outcry from patrons or anyone else for that matter.

We have to give the state Education Department credit for trying to elicit comments. But during two separate attempts, very few folks had much to say.

That can be taken in different ways. One would be that few people care that the district is being considered for absorption of one type or another with the Pine Bluff School District.

Another would be that they are just spent, weary of being associated with a school district on life support, weary of witnessing their district try for five long years to get out from under state control and failing to do so.

Over those five years, the district has made headway, as determined by state Education Department officials. Superintendent Barbara Warren is responsible for that. She's been the person in charge at Dollarway, and later, she was put in charge of the Pine Bluff School District, which had also been put under state control. But the progress hasn't been enough.

And that progress doesn't really address one of the bigger problems the district has, which is a loss of enrollment. What's a few students, you might ask. Multiply each one by about $7,000, and you'll see that it adds up quickly. In Dollarway, over the past handful of years, the loss in enrollment has equated to a loss of revenue from the state approaching $2 million.

It's hard to imagine having to shore up the sorely needed education side of a school district while oceans of money are washing out to sea every year.

Now, at the end of the five years of state takeover, the Education Department has to make a move. That's because five years is the limit. After that length of time, the state has to return the district to local control or merge it with another school district using one of three means.

Back when this conversation first started, the option to return Dollarway to local control was on the table for discussion. That would mean the patrons could elect their own school board members and those members could hire their own superintendent.

But after the state had a consulting firm assess the district, it was determined that the district wasn't ready for such freedom.

One option that is getting the most attention is annexation, meaning Dollarway would be absorbed by the Pine Bluff district but that Dollarway would still have some of its own identity. Officials said last during a working board meeting that there was no reason to think that Dollarway's buildings would close if a newly combined district needed them. And they said it would also be possible for district to retain its own sports activities. Perhaps the Cardinal will live on after all.

Other positives of annexation were, in our estimation, crucial to seeing this new district get on its feet. One is that, because the Pine Bluff district is under state control, this newly combined district would also be under state control, which is where it should stay until it is out of trouble.

A second positive, related to the first, is that under the arrangement of annexation, Superintendent Warren would be able to continue her yeoman's work, answering only to the state and not to a school board.

No offense to school boards in general, but if a school board could have averted the problems now facing these districts, they wouldn't be where they are today.

The job of putting all of this together and making it work will be enormous. Transitioning from two districts to one, no matter which alternative the state board takes, will take time. And all the while, the clock is ticking on the five-year limit on the state takeover of the Pine Bluff district, which itself expires in 2023, meaning that the combined district will have to be able to stand on its own two feet by then or, like Dollarway, joined with another district. Already, the time seems short.

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