State takes over Marvell-Elaine schools

‘Transformation contract’ with third party on table for 306-student district

A banner in the gymnasium at Marvell-Elaine High School in Marvell is shown in this 2021 courtesy photo. (Courtesy Marvell-Elaine High School via Facebook)

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 "transformation contract" with a third party to operate the district as permitted by 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 $19,000 per student and the lowest overall student achievement rate, is in Level 5 of the state's accountability system. The Marvell-Elaine Elementary and High schools both have state-applied F grades.

"We would be blazing a trail," Stacy Smith, state deputy education commissioner, told the state board about the potential for entering a contract with a third party for school transformation.

The Education Board met Thursday in the high school gymnasium in the Marvell-Elaine district.

In addition to the Marvell-Elaine issue, the Education Board approved:

The overhaul of the state's seven-year-old math and English/language arts standards.

A waiver of first-time teacher licensure application fees for the following period: May 1, 2023, to Aug. 31, 2023.

Almost two dozen members of the audience addressed the Education Board -- including one who did so in song -- in support of preserving the Marvell-Elaine district.

"One thing I've learned is that [Marvell-Elaine] Mustangs always stick together," high School junior Kayla Gatsun told the board in asking that her school district not be consolidated with another 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 current Marvell-Elaine School Board will remain in an advisory capacity through the end of the current school year.

Katina Ray, superintendent of the district, will remain involved in the operation of the system through this school year.

Any proposed transformation contract -- be it with an open-enrollment charter school, 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 district's request for a waiver of the state law that requires at least 350 students to operate a school system. That state Education Board vote set up 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. Those plans included the possibility of splitting the Marvell-Elaine system students between multiple districts, sending Elaine students to Barton and Marvell students to Helena-West Helena Lee County.

"There is not a winner," Smith said about the possible partnerships, noting that both Lee County and Helena-West Helena are themselves operating under state control. There were also concerns about whether partner districts could adequately absorb Marvell-Elaine's $4 million building debt. Each of the potential partner schools would likely close the Marvell-Elaine campuses.

Smith described additional options available beyond a traditional school district annexation as a result of new legislation.

The freshly signed House Bill 1504, for example, allows a district of under 350 students to continue to operate if students in the small district would have to travel more than 40 miles to a school campus in a consolidated school system. That new law eliminated Brinkley, Clarendon, DeWitt, and McGehee as districts that could absorb the Marvell-Elaine system, Smith said.

The new Arkansas LEARNS Act provision authorizing transformation contracts would enable the Marvell-Elaine district to continue to exist and to keep its campuses open, although its teachers would likely have to reapply for jobs. Students in the Marvell-Elaine district would continue to be eligible to exercise choice out of their home district.

The Arkansas Division of Elementary and Secondary Education would put out an "all call" for proposals from interested parties to manage the school district. The Marvell-Elaine district would pay the cost of what would likely be a three-year contract, Smith said. She said that already three potential partners have surfaced: the Friendship Aspire charter school system, a team of two education service cooperatives and a Marvell-Elaine community group, starting with the upcoming 2023-24 school year.

Smith told the board that the transformation contract is an opportunity to do something different.

"There has to be a transformational change in the district," Smith said. "What is happening in the classrooms is not OK. Students are not getting the education they deserve."

Andrew Bagley, owner of the Helena World newspaper and a former teacher in the Elaine School District before its 2006 merger with Marvell, urged approval of the transformation contract plan, saying that the practice of consolidating school districts has run its course and that the LEARNS Act gives east Arkansas an opportunity to do something that has never been done before.

"This district has immense potential," Bagley said. "It has good facilities and it has students who are capable."

With Oliva in charge and a third party operating the district, "I believe this district can become a national showcase for why the LEARNS bill was the right answer to the question," he said.

Rosie Tate, a teacher of more than 50 years and now a community volunteer, sang the song "The Greatest Love of All" in her support of the Marvell-Elaine students.

Rep. Mark McElroy, R-Tillar, sponsor of HB1504, thanked the board for meeting in Marvell-Elaine and listening to people.

"I want to thank our governor. The LEARNS Act is just what we needed," said McElroy, who did a little dance of joy when the Education Board voted 7-0 to authorize discussions with potential third-party operators of the district.

There is no deadline for those discussions to be completed, Smith said in response to questions from Education Board member Sarah Moore of Stuttgart.

"Our hope is to quickly try to turn something around," Smith said, adding that the proposed contract will go to the Education Board when state officials are comfortable with it.

"If we can bring you something in two weeks, we will," Smith said but also said it could be a month or two away.

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders championed the 145-page omnibus LEARNS Act that -- in addition to authorizing the transformation contracts between school districts and third-party organizations -- raises the minimum teacher salary to $50,000 statewide and expands the use of taxpayer money for private school tuition and supplies. LEARNS stands for literacy, empowerment, accountability, readiness, networking and safety.

Oliva praised the Marvell-Elaine community members for their monthslong interest in the district's future and he applauded the governor for getting the legislation passed that creates opportunities for every student to be successful in life.

Marvell-Elaine joins the Pine Bluff, Earle, Lee County and Helena-West Helena districts that are currently operating under state control.

  photo  A map showing the location of the Marvell-Elaine School District