Go Forward Pine Bluff has announced a collaborative release with the NAACP of a school consolidation study, but some members of the civil rights group have said they don’t know what’s in the study and weren’t given the chance of voting on the joint release.
Go Forward and former NAACP officials have defended the collaboration.
The NAACP members met via Zoom late Thursday and extensively discussed not just the study but the partnership arrangement between the NAACP and Go Forward.
Member Glenn Freeman said he was disturbed by the appearance portrayed to the public between the NAACP and Go Forward.
“In the newspaper, it implies we have a partnership with GFPB,” said Freeman. “The community believes we ordained and support this process.”
Freeman said if a partnership existed with Go Forward, the NAACP members should have approved it.
“We should have been a participant in selecting the committee,” Freeman said, referring to a panel of people named by Go Forward that made the decision on the question of consolidating the three school districts in Pine Bluff. “It looks as if the branch is being used when it’s something the branch knows nothing about.”
NAACP member Kymara Seals said she agreed with Freeman’s comments.
“Go Forward Pine Bluff hijacked the process and it’s different from when it started,” Seals said, adding that she feels that Go Forward is using the name of the NAACP to gain credibility for the consolidation decision.
But the idea to consolidate the districts in Pine Bluff actually originated from former NAACP President Ivan Whitfield.
“When I was president of the NAACP I sought … to change some things and make it better for the children in our community, which was looking at consolidating, because we do not have the great number of children in each school district,” said Whitfield.
Whitfield said he went to the NAACP with his concerns and that the members agreed to move forward with an open community meeting, which included the district superintendents, to discuss the possibilities.
“We had the meeting. Some liked it and some did not like it,” said Whitfield. “As president, what I did was challenge anybody in our community that thought it was a great idea to try to do what it needs to be done to see if we could help our kids with consolidation. Later on, Go Forward came up with a plan as I was leaving.”
The Pine Bluff and Dollarway districts are now operated by the state because of numerous deficiencies, but Watson Chapel is still operating on its own. Watson Chapel board members recently passed a resolution saying they were not interested in being consolidated with the other two districts.
Despite Watson Chapel’s stand, Whitfield said he feels the consolidation would benefit the district also because of its poor report card rating by the Arkansas Department of Education.
According to ADE, the latest available grades from the 2018-2019 school year, are as follows:
Pine Bluff School District: Broadmoor Elementary, Pine Bluff High School, Thirty-Fourth Street Elementary and W.T. Cheney Elementary have “F” letter grades.
The remaining schools in the district have a “D.”
Dollarway School District: All schools have an “F.”
Watson Chapel School District: Coleman Elementary and L.L. Owen Elementary have an “F” letter grade with the remaining schools in the district with a “D.”
Current NAACP President Wanda Neal said that on Sept. 29, a community meeting would take place, during which the group would present the results from a study regarding the idea of consolidating the schools in Pine Bluff.
After reviewing the study, the community will have time to decide on support for the consolidation decision, but during Thursday’s NAACP meeting, attorney Miracha King said he felt that the NAACP was not unified with one voice on the subject of consolidating school districts.
King suggested the matter be discussed by the branch and voted on again by the members.
Neal confirmed that the decision to involve the branch occurred when Whitfield was president. While others had no recollection of voting on the matter, Neal said the local branch did take up the subject.
“This branch voted on this,” said Neal, who made it clear she was against the consolidation and didn’t want it when it was presented to the branch when Whitfield was president. “I was told eight months ago that the president informed them [Go Forward] the branch gave them the latitude because it was a request from the NAACP Pine Bluff branch.”
NAACP Branch Secretary Dorothy Oliver said the concern she expressed to then-president Whitfield was that a partnership could not be established with Go Forward until it was approved by the national NAACP board.
“If we are going to partner, we have to go through national,” said Oliver. She suggested that branch members have further discussions of what their role is and not just allow the NAACP name to be used without their approval.
“We can’t call it a partnership if it hasn’t been approved,” said Oliver, who said she would go back and research the minutes from the past meetings to see exactly what was voted on.
Ryan Watley, CEO of Go Forward Pine Bluff, said that the relationship between the two groups, for the purposes of the consolidation report, is a partnership, despite the confusion between the branch members, stating Neal has been involved in the process for the past eight months. Watley said Go Forward took on the challenge presented by the NAACP’s request. Go Forward then established a committee, which included Neal.
In last week’s Go Forward press release, Neal was quoted as saying that she was initially apprehensive about the consolidation study, but that the past eight months have been very eye opening to the needs of students and to the future of the community.
“We do feel like it is a partnership and we stand by that based on Mrs. Neal’s participation and we continue to consult with Mrs. Neal,” said Watley, who also added that Neal confirmed the committee members before they moved forward with the process. “She works with her executive body to bring us to this point now.”
During the NAACP meeting, Neal offered to bring leaders from Go Forward to the branch to give their views on the joint statement issue.
Watley said he is ready to move past the challenge presented by the NAACP and inform the community of what was found in the detailed study.
“The committee has done an outstanding job,” said Watley. “We have some local stakeholders as well as some very detailed and professional consultants who have led this study and want to really inform the citizens of Pine Bluff about where their education system exists and where it can be.”
He also said the meeting is simply to educate the community on what the study has found.
“I think it is important that this is a consolidation study and we want to share with the community what we have found,” he said. “This is not a determination of consolidation or not because we don’t have that authority.”
Whitf ield said even though the NAACP never sat at the table with Go Forward and said “let’s come together to do what needs to be done,” he does give them credit that they took a stand to move forward.
“I’m glad they did, and I hope others will step up and see what is best for our children,” said Whitfield. “The more we get involved the better we can come to the right conclusion and make things better.”
The community meeting is set to take place 6 p.m Sept. 29 at the Pine Bluff Convention Center.
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