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State puts Marvell-Elaine School District under ‘intensive support’ after bad test scores, teacher issues

State Education Board vote calls for intensive support by Bill Bowden | November 29, 2022 at 5:37 a.m.
A classroom is shown in this 2015 file photo.

The state Board of Education voted Monday to place the Marvell-Elaine School District in Level 5/Intensive Support under the Arkansas Educational Support and Accountability Act.

The Arkansas Department of Education's Division of Elementary and Secondary Education recommended the move to Level 5 support, citing among other things, poor test scores and the need for "human capital analysis" because of concerns regarding the number of certified, contract or virtual teachers.

Marvell-Elaine had the lowest Every Student Succeeds Act index scores for academic achievement and academic growth of all school districts in the state, according to the state board order signed by Ouida Newton, chair, after Monday's meeting.

The order directed Johnny Key, commissioner of the Arkansas Department of Education, to conduct an analysis of all Marvell-Elaine School District systems and make recommendations for additional action to the board.

"We are not trying to assume state authority over Marvell-Elaine School District," Stacy Smith, a deputy commissioner for the Division of Elementary and Secondary Education, told the state board at the beginning of Monday's meeting. "We're not recommending for the superintendent to be removed. We're not recommending for the school board to be removed, but for them to be classified as in need of Level 5 support."

But the move to Level 5 opens the door to those possibilities in the future, Key told the board later in the meeting.

The last school district to be placed under Level 5 support was Helena-West Helena on July 14. In that case, the state board removed all powers of the local school board to make personnel decisions and gave those powers to Key.

Last year, the state board placed the Lee County School District in Level 5 support and assumed authority over the district. The state board did the same with the Pine Bluff School District in 2018.

In 2019, the state board placed the Earle School District under Level 5 support at the district's request. At the time, Key described it as a "friendly Level 5." The Earle district was taken over by the state in November 2017.

The Marvell-Elaine School District, in Phillips County, has been under Level 4/Directed Support since 2019, and Superintendent Katina Ray asked the state board to allow the district to remain in that category.

Ray told the state board that the previous Marvell-Elaine superintendent, Henry Anderson, died 11 months ago after a prolonged illness, and she's been superintendent for only five months.

She asked the state board to give her more time to make a difference in the school district.

Ray said there's a sense of abandonment among the pupils. She went on a trip. When she returned, they said, "We thought you'd left us."

Level 5 involves more face-to-face interaction with the state Department of Education, as opposed to Level 4, which relies more on teleconference and telephone support, Smith told the board.

In both Level 4 and Level 5, school districts must work with the Arkansas Department of Education to develop a "district support plan" and submit it to the department for approval. In the case of Level 5, the plan also must be submitted to the state board for approval.

Among other things, the district support plans establish priorities regarding goals or anticipated outcomes, identify resources to support those priorities and describe the measures for analyzing and evaluating that the district support was effective in improving school performance.

Some state board members expressed concern because a Nov. 21 snapshot of the Marvell-Elaine School District's 2023 budget showed a loss of $907,363 for the school year. The school district was just removed from a "fiscal distress" classification in 2021.

Ray told the state board that some federal transfers of money had yet to be recorded in the budget, and it will look considerably different afterward.

Before voting to place the school district in Level 5, the state board denied an appeal from Ray asking that the district remain in Level 4. In each case, the board voted 7-0.

In a presentation before the board, Ray said the Marvell-Elaine School District has 306 students and 76% of them live in the Marvell area. The others are bused from Elaine, about 25 miles to the south. The two school districts were consolidated in 2006.

The Marvell-Elaine School District is in jeopardy of being merged with another school district because it has been below the 350 enrollment threshold for two years in a row. The school district applied for a waiver earlier this month while still under Level 4 support.

About 90% of the student body at Marvell-Elaine is Black, 7% white and 3% Hispanic or other.

About 97% of the students in the school district come from low-income families, according to Ray. She said the district has a high number of homeless students and those from single-parent families.

The school district has 62 employees. It currently has openings for "instructional facilitators" (math and literacy), teachers, maintenance supervisor, security guard, paraprofessionals, substitutes and high school principal.

"We don't have a lot of industry," Ray told the state board. "We don't have a restaurant. We eat at the local gas station for our lunch there."

Brad Beavers, a Forrest City lawyer who represents the Marvell-Elaine School District, told the state board the school district had no leadership for the four or five months when the previous superintendent was sick.

Beavers said he helped Anderson clean up some of the financial problems in the school district. Beavers said he discovered that the Elaine school had a "teacherage," a house where a teacher was allowed to live for free, and that had to change.

In 2020, a former business manager for the Marvell-Elaine School District was ordered to spend four years in prison for embezzling $471,665 that officials said caused teacher and counselor layoffs and nearly shut the district down altogether.

Print Headline: Marvell-Elaine School District under ‘intensive support’


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