Officials offer timeline for Pine Bluff School District local control

Arkansas Department of Education deputy commissioner Stacy Smith addresses Pine Bluff School District patrons Thursday, at McFadden Gymnasium. 
(Pine Bluff Commercial/I.C. Murrell)
Arkansas Department of Education deputy commissioner Stacy Smith addresses Pine Bluff School District patrons Thursday, at McFadden Gymnasium. (Pine Bluff Commercial/I.C. Murrell)

A high-ranking official with the Arkansas Department of Education told Pine Bluff School District patrons Thursday evening that a limited-authority board could take control with approval and support of the state Board of Education by January 2023, with the possibility of an appointed or elected board granted full control by the following November.

Deputy commissioner Stacy Smith said during the district's annual report to the public at McFadden Gymnasium she proposed the timeline to the Arkansas Board of Education in December, provided the district keeps audit findings "minimal to clean" and keeps up with its balances. The district was placed under state authority and classified as in fiscal distress in September 2018, giving the state board power to remove the elected board and interim superintendent.

"We had a pretty clean fiscal audit this last year," Smith said. "We still have areas to tighten up, and we are open about that. Things like personnel situations and shifts situated -- I think we're getting there -- and policies and procedures."

September 2023 will mark five years of state control, at which point the Education Department must return a district to local control or merge it with another district under state law. The board in December 2020 ordered the Dollarway district, which had been under state control since December 2015, to be annexed into the Pine Bluff district on July 1, 2021.

Barbara Warren, the former Dollarway superintendent, supervised both districts simultaneously during the 2020-21 school year and remains the chief of the annexed PBSD today.

"I know the annexation is hard, and I know a lot of Dollarway people sitting in the audience feel like you lost your schools, but the state board was very clear that they did not want those schools to close," Smith said. "We have remained committed to that. They're open right now. Kids are at those schools, and they'll be at those schools next year."

Smith also dispelled rumors about a possible merger with the Watson Chapel School District, which is still governed by a local board.

New board zones must be established within the PBSD by this spring, Smith said, and community members will be given the opportunity for input into the boundaries at a future meeting.

The goal of full local control by late 2023 is based on the district's progress toward a strategic plan that will be reported to the state board, she added.

"Looking at mid-next year, some type of board, the state could either do an appointed board, they could do an elected board, or half-and-half," she added. "Between now and then, it's about how to get something formed like that, and most likely, it would be a limited-authority board."

Money in the bank

Warren stated two factors that led to the PBSD being listed in fiscal distress: a declining balance and reportable audit findings, both of which were determined to jeopardize the fiscal integrity of the district.

The PBSD's ending balance has increased each school year from $3,608,178.39 in 2017-18 to $5,446,897.06 in 2020-21. The district saw its enrollment dwindle from 3,694 students in 2017-18 to 2,912 in 2020-21, but that increased to 3,576 for this school year with the Dollarway annexation. The Dollarway district enrolled 907 students last school year.

"What I attribute the lack of a declining balance to -- because it was declining for multiple years -- is us watching our dollars better, trying to get some stability when it comes to fiscal services, and stabilizing," Warren said. "As much as we are losing students and have lost students each year, I think the district from [former superintendent Jeremy Owoh's] days to my days, we are looking ahead and planning for the loss, so I think that's just made us better stewards."

The PBSD operates on a total revenue budget of $41,433,924, including $15.6 million in local taxes and $7,018 in state funding per student.

Other numbers

According to student demographics, 100% of those enrolled in the PBSD are eligible for free or reduced meals, 14.12% are eligible for special education and 1.15% are English language learners. The racial breakdown among the student population is 93% African American, 2.6% white, 1.6% Hispanic, 0.3% Asian, 0.2% Native American and 1.9% those of two or more races.

The average teacher salary is $53,118. Among teacher qualifications, 64% have attained a bachelor's degree, 34% have earned a master's, 5% have a specialist's degree, 3% have earned doctorates and 7% are national board-certified.

Facilities update

Maintenance and operations director Booker Franklin announced upgrades to Pine Bluff High School's McFadden Gym coming in March, including replacement of the heating unit, addition of air conditioning, refinished gym floors and restroom renovation. The gym dates back to about 1951.

The floor has been replaced and refinished and the walls painted at the school's Trice Gym.

The HVAC system and roof at the Jack Robey Junior High School gym will be replaced at a later date.

Upcoming Events