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.