Schools seek waivers of state laws, rules

Arkansas Board of Education to consider requests from Marvell-Elaine 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)
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 will consider at its meeting Friday requests for waivers of some state laws and rules from the Marvell-Elaine School District, the state's first traditional district to be operated by a charter management organization.

The tiny, 222-student Phillips County school district that is under state control and without a locally elected school board is seeking one-year waivers of rules and laws that:

Require state-licensed educators;

Set parameters for teacher planning time in increments of at least 40 minutes;

Mandate a school library;

Require one or more counselors;

Require a gifted and talented education program separate from regular instruction;

Set personnel policies.

The requests for waivers by the state's singular "transformation" district are similar to waiver requests made by open-enrollment public charter schools and by traditional public schools and school districts.

The Education Board's monthly business meeting starts at 9 a.m. Friday at the Arch Ford Education Building, 4 Capitol Mall, Little Rock.

The Marvell-Elaine district started this school year in August under the day-to-day management of FEF-Arkansas, an affiliate of the Friendship Education Foundation -- a charter school management group.

The Friendship Education Foundation sponsors open-enrollment public charter schools in Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pine Bluff.

State education leaders entered into a $200,000-a-year, three-year contract with FEF-Arkansas for direct management after the enactment of Act 237 of 2023, or the multifaceted LEARNS Act that was initiated by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

The act authorizes a school district that has a D- or F-graded school or is in need of "Level 5-intensive support" to be exempted from sanctions -- including consolidation with another district -- if the school board contracts with a charter school or another third-party entity to operate a "public school district transformation campus."

In the case of the Marvell-Elaine district, which is operating under state authority, Arkansas Education Secretary Jacob Oliva serves in lieu of a school board for the system.

Oliva, state Education Board Chair Sarah Moore of Stuttgart, and Joe H. Harris III -- who is the chief executive officer of FEF-Arkansas -- signed the 22-page contract between FEF-Arkansas and the state on Aug. 1.

That contract describes the responsibilities of the state and the foundation in regard to Marvell-Elaine.

"Foundation is authorized by the [education secretary] ... to oversee, manage, and operate the district," the contract says. "Foundation is vested with all powers necessary or desirable for carrying out its program and operating the District on a day- to- day and on-going basis," the contract also states.

"Foundation shall provide District with an educational program based on the Friendship School Design but adapted to the specific circumstances and programs for students in the district," the contract continues. "The parties agree that an essential principle of the Friendship School Design is its flexibility, adaptability and capacity to change in the interests of continuous improvement and efficiency, and further, that the parties are interested in results, not inflexible prescriptions."

The contract directs that FEF-Arkansas "shall carry out an educational program in a manner that is consistent with Arkansas law, including requirements regarding content and subjects of instruction, unless any such requirement has been waived by Arkansas authorities."

The foundation is responsible for the performance of its students as gauged in part by state assessments, the contract states.

In regard to most employees, the district -- not the foundation -- is the employer. But the foundation has the responsibility of recommending staffing levels as well as selecting, evaluating, assigning and disciplining personnel. The foundation's employees are the superintendent, director of facilities and director of operations.

The contract also addresses seeking waivers of certain state rules and laws for operating a school system, stating that "The District shall, with Foundation's assistance, apply for and support the waiver of any state laws and the Standards for Accreditation that interfere with or are beneficial to the implementation of the Friendship School Design.

"Waivers may be sought when necessary from the State Board of Education at the discretion of the District and Foundation. Any waiver granted by the state Board of Education will be subject to the terms specified in the [Education Board's] order," the contract states.

The Marvell-Elaine district is seeking a waiver of state law and education standards that require a full-time licensed superintendent.

The district leaders explained in documents submitted to the state Board of Education that the district contracts with FEF-Arkansas for the services of a superintendent. The district wants to retain the ability to hire a superintendent based on experience regardless of the person's licensure.

Phong Tran, the current superintendent, has completed the foundation's superintendent mentoring program.

Regarding the request to waive requirements for a separate gifted education program, the district said that student learning will be enhanced by keeping students together.

"We believe an environment that is student-centered, engaging and rigorous is best for all students," the waiver request states. "Student testing will be conducted throughout the year that will allow the teachers and school leaders to determine those students who need additional support and those students who are prepared for more enhanced instruction."

Additionally, district leaders asked to be able to employ a social worker instead of a school counselor in support of students and their emotional needs.

In regard to school library requirements in state law and rules, Marvell-Elaine managers stated that having "rich text classroom environments" will enhance student learning opportunities as students will have more frequent access to materials under the supervision of their classroom teachers. English language arts teachers will be trained on library media standards to teach their students.

Marvell-Elaine plans to provide teachers with at least 200 minutes of planning time each week as required by state law but wants the ability to provide that time in a manner that is different than the required 40-minute increments.

As for a waiver of required personnel policies, the Marvell-Elaine district is proposing to develop human resource policies "that are best suited to serve our innovation education model including ... terms and conditions of employments; salary schedule, fringe benefits ... annual school calendar ... evaluation procedures, leave, grievance procedures, termination or suspension, reduction in force and assignments."

The school district said that if given a waiver of teacher licensure laws and rules, district students will not be affected. All academic core and fine arts teachers will be highly qualified and will meet "specific and rigorous" district standards, the proposal states. All teachers will have a bachelor's degree and evidence of competency in the field they teach.

"However, within those requirements, we want our principal to have the autonomy to hire the best possible teachers, even if some of those candidates' qualifications do not include an Arkansas teacher license," the proposal adds.

The Marvell-Elaine district provides annual training to faculty. "The training addresses the fundamentals of school organization, student management, and student achievement," the proposal also states.