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State takes over Marvell-Elaine school district

by Cynthia Howell | April 13, 2023 at 3:25 p.m.
In December 2022, Marvell-Elaine School Board President Clyde Williams (left), board member Justin Cox (middle) and Superintendent Katina Ray (right) participated in a session on the fate of the Marvell Elaine School District during a state Board of Education meeting. On Thursday, the state Education Board voted to take over the district. (Pine Bluff Commercial/I.C. Murrell)

The Arkansas Board of Education on Thursday took control of the 306-student Marvell-Elaine School District and directed Education Secretary Jacob Oliva to explore entering into a "transformational contract" with a third party to operate it as permitted by a new state law.

The Arkansas LEARNS Act, or Act 237 of 2023, authorizes a school district that has a D or F rated school or is in need of Level 5 intensive support to be exempted from sanctions if the school board contracts with a charter school or another third party entity to operate a public school district transformation campus.

The tiny school district, which now has the highest expense per student in the state at more than $16,000 per student and the lowest overall student achievement rates, is in Level 5 of the state's accountability system. Both the Marvell-Elaine Elementary and High schools have state-applied F grades.

"We are blazing a new trail," Stacy Smith, state deputy education commissioner, told the state board, which met Thursday in the high school gymnasium in the Marvell-Elaine district. Almost two dozen members of the audience addressed the Education Board in support of preserving the Marvell-Elaine district.

As a result of the Education Board's votes on a series of motions:

• The Phillips County district will continue to exist but operate under state control with Oliva acting in lieu of the district's elected school board.

• The local school board will remain in an advisory capacity through the end of the current school year.

•Any proposed transformational contract — be it with a charter school, an education service cooperative or another organization — would ultimately go to the state Education Board for final approval,

The state Education Board had voted late last year to deny the Marvell-Elaine's request for a waiver of a state law that requires at least 350 students to operate a school system, setting the Phillips County system to be absorbed by one or more other school districts for the upcoming 2023-24 school year.

On Thursday, Smith described the pros and cons of different annexation plans with surrounding districts, such as Barton, Helena-West Helena and Lee County. Smith and the state agency ultimately recommended the use of the transformational contract.


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