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story.lead_photo.caption The location of the Dollarway School District is shown in this 2015 graphic.

Editor’s note: This is part two of a two-part series. Part one was published Saturday.

WestEd representative Jason Willis joined Stacy Smith, director of the Office of Coordinated Support and Service, Friday morning to walk through the options for the Dollarway School District if the state Board of Education decides the district cannot be returned to local control.

WestEd is a research firm hired by the state Education Department to ascertain the academic and financial fitness of the district as the state approaches the five-year deadline for either turning the district back to local control or taking more drastic measures such as consolidating it with another district. The department’s staff said at the meeting and in a report that while the district has made improvements in several areas, it is not ready to be operated as a stand-alone district.

Before the different scenarios were explained, WestEd representatives discussed the community stakeholder meetings, which had a very low community response. The stakeholder engagement meetings held virtually, for the Dollarway community only, were held Oct. 5-13 and facilitated by WestEd with 126 potential participants. Seventy-four confirmed that they would participate, but only 37 took part.

“We actually had lots of people reach out to us from Jefferson County as a whole, especially Pine Bluff wanting to give feedback,” Smith said. “We made the decision that we felt like it was very important — because it was Dollarway School District — to close off a piece of time just to hear from Dollarway.”

State board member Ouida Newton said she was concerned with low participation because she understands how important community feedback is. Her other concern was that virtual meetings in rural communities and different parts of urban communities are sometimes difficult due to the lack of access to technology and the internet.

Smith said state officials went into this knowing they might not have had great turnout but felt like it was still important. Smith added that during a similar timeline, Go Forward Pine Bluff was also releasing its report and holding its own community feedback sessions for Jefferson County.

“They were having participation at some of their meetings countywide,” said Smith. “I’m disappointed in the number that participated as far as the number of contacts, but I don’t know that we were completely surprised.”

Go Forward hired its own research firm to study the possible consolidation of districts in the Pine Bluff area and has included the Watson Chapel School District as well as the Pine Bluff and Dollarway districts in those analyses. The state, however, has said that Watson Chapel, because it is not in state takeover, is not being considered for consolidation.

Despite the low numbers of public participation, the input from those who participated gave the board feedback from the community, such as teachers, administrators, parents, students and community leaders. Stakeholder input showed Dollar-way’s culture had improved in the last three years: It has a strong family-like community, its academic outcomes are rising, and Superintendent Barbara Warren’s leadership has brought about positive change. Warren is the superintendent for both Pine Bluff and Dollarway districts.

Stakeholders also said Dollarway’s identity is critical to community welfare, and the district needs to offer additional services and programs for students. Stakeholders also said they wanted to have input on decisions ahead of time, and they felt that Dollar-way was not ready to return to local control.

“They were mentioning things like the district’s names, mascots and buildings had strong community recognition. And families that have a long history in the Dollarway School said there was a fear of losing that identity,” said Felicia Reed, a WestEd presenter. “As a result of community decline, they mentioned the Altheimer district and how the school district loss was harmful to the community overall, and that many businesses were relying on the schools for keeping their business up.”

The Altheimer School District was consolidated into the Dollarway School District in 2006.

As WestEd presenter Willis began to go over the three possible solutions, he said the Pine Bluff School District would be the only district considered for annexing or consolidating. Both school districts have been hampered by precipitous, declining enrollment over the past several years, which has led to the continual need to reduce expenditures to ensure alignment with available revenues. Other conditions such as novice teachers and needed facilities repairs have also contributed to a lack of effective resource investment.

“We looked at how do you minimize the amount of administrative overhead for the school district while maintaining the integrity of the necessary duties that are responsible for the central office,” Willis said. “Depending on the scenario, if you are moving one position to the other, if the other position in Pine Bluff had a slightly higher compensation level, we would assume the higher level of compensation.”

Willis said enrollment was the lifeline that keeps school districts going and was the basis for the vast majority of revenue that the school district receives. Because Dollarway has lost so much enrollment, its ending balances have also been tumbling, from $3.2 million three years ago to a projected $153,000 at the end of the current school year.

Conditions of the facilities also weighed on the financial health of the school district, and Willis suggested future building projects be put on hold if the schools were going to be annexed or consolidated in the near future.

RECONSTITUTION OPTION

If Dollarway not be returned to local control, consideration for reconstitution of the district is an option with 37% of stakeholders considering this route as a way to preserve local identity and allow for local choice. Many stated that they are unclear of the definition, and 77% of stakeholders said they believe if Dollarway remained as a separate entity, it could be showcased as a model rural school district within a few years.

The district would be governed differently — in a manner decided by the state Board of Education — to maintain progress toward improvement. Central services would be merged with the Pine Bluff School District.

A new school board would be a mix of appointed and elected members as well as university partners. Willis said by having a board reflective of the local university would offer a great mix of educational expertise along with local voices, and it would also offer the ability for the state to remain involved.

There would also be a decrease in expenses and an increase in cost savings. Superintendent Warren would remain, and some central positions would be consolidated. The Education Department’s Division of Elementary and Secondary Education would appoint some school board members and support the transition.

ANNEXATION OPTION

If the option taken be annexation, the Dollarway district would be absorbed by Pine Bluff, which would maintain leadership over schools previously within the Dollarway School District.

Commenting on that option, 90% of stakeholders described in some way how the school district is a critical component of the neighborhood’s identity, culture and economic welfare, while 70% of stakeholders expressed concern that dissolving the school district at this point would stall positive momentum and not allow the community to be recognized for its hard work. Half of the stakeholders expressed concern annexation would result in the loss of the “family-like” atmosphere of Dollarway.

The annexation would start July 1, 2021, and be implemented over one to two years. The Division of Elementary and Secondary Education would resume authority and appoint a limited-authority board.

State-incentive funds would temporarily increase revenue, and the merger of secondary school campuses in 2022-23 would happen as well as the consolidation of staff. There would also be a sale of excess buildings, and some central office positions would be reduced.

The subject of transportation raised concerns with some state board members as a merger would increase maximum bus rides for some students to more than 100 minutes in the Dollarway School District and 50 minutes in the Pine Bluff School District.

Board member Steve Sutton said he has lived through two district annexations, and transportation became a very big issue.

“It might not appear to be that important as you study the fiscal responsibilities and academics, but transportation becomes a real bearing,” he said. “The maximum ride time of 100 minutes, I don’t know how many students that would affect, but that is an awfully long time.”

Smith said that though she agreed that some of the bus rides would be lengthy, these options were suggestions based on how money could be saved in each scenario and that the board can consider these options when they make their final decisions.

“Even though they made that presentation and gave that suggestion, there’s still a conversation to be had that there is a money-saving opportunity in transportation,” Smith said.

CONSOLIDATION OPTION

By consolidating the Dollarway and the Pine Bluff School District, the two would merge and become a new, larger school district. The districts would combine operations, assets and leadership, and they would operate under one unified strategy, starting July 1, 2021. A new school board would be elected with representation from all geographic areas.

State-incentive funds would temporarily increase revenue. A merger of secondary school campuses in 2022-23 and consolidation of staff would follow along with the sale of excess buildings. Superintendent Warren would remain, and other staffing changes would be made by new district leadership and school board. The Division of Elementary and Secondary Education would no longer have authority but would provide technical assistance through an interim-appointed school board.

According to WestEd, these options and scenarios would have an immediate cost savings with larger, long-term savings achieved with school mergers likely completed in the 2022-23 school year. The annexation and consolidation options offer an additional, one-time state investment that outpaces cost savings achieved in the short run.

“We’re talking about massive reductions of headcount and staffing,” said state Department of Education Commissioner Johnny Key, who added that approximately 80% of the funding is tied up in personnel. “There are very few other places to cut. We just got to be straight that’s where we are.”

Key said in the past they have worked very hard to try to raise and increase salaries to hold people to reduce constant turnover in the district.

“There were a number of things we tried to do to get the academics solidified, and I think we have been successful in it, but at the same time we have that balance,” said Key. “When we think about what the implications are, there are really some tough decisions with respect to staffing.”

The board will meet on Dec. 1 to continue its work on the Dollarway question, and then it is scheduled to make a decision on Dec. 10.

Print Headline: Barring local control, 3 futures for Dollarway

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