Watson Chapel School District Superintendent Tom Wilson criticized key parts of Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' education reform plan during Monday night's regular school board meeting.
Sanders last week unveiled plans to overhaul education in Arkansas at the state Capitol. The plans are based on her Arkansas LEARNS initiative, with the acronym standing for literacy, empowerment, accountability, readiness, networking and school safety.
An Education Freedom Account that would give parents vouchers to use for sending their children to an outside district or a private, parochial or home school has drawn widespread concern among public school educators who fear the plan would, in turn, reduce the enrollment of public districts. Wilson noted the WCSD, which presently has 1,801 students, has seen a reduction in enrollment by about 600 over the past five to six years.
"I'm not for it," Wilson said. "I believe in public schools. I'm not saying there's a right place for every student, but I'd hate to see dollars taken out from public schools. How many kids might take advantage of this? I don't know, but we're trying to have school and we're going to have a school."
If the bill is passed in the state Legislature, the voucher plan would be phased in over three years, allowing students who attend schools graded "F" under the Arkansas Department of Education School Report Card to receive funding in the first year, then those in "D"-graded schools over the second year, and then all students in the third.
Wilson said that would create problems for inner-city schools.
"We're dealing with the poorest students," Wilson said. "We're dealing with low socioeconomic things. We've got to get to where we can teach these kids and have that home structure that I'm talking about. We're concerned about that, but just because a kid changes schools doesn't mean he's going to improve all at once and all of that. That's why we want a safe school. We want our schools to be as safe as any of them."
One of the main features of Sanders' plan is offering a $50,000 minimum salary and $10,000 bonuses to teachers who make significant gains in improving student outcomes. Sanders is also calling for the repeal of the state Teacher Fair Dismissal Act, which requires that allegations against a teacher be put in writing and gives a teacher the right to a school board hearing.
"We don't even have enough teachers right now," Wilson said.
Details of the LEARNS plan were revealed as Watson Chapel faces funding issues regarding construction of a new high school despite passing a millage increase in August.
Wilson said state Rep. Mike Holcomb, R-Pine Bluff, and colleagues will meet with the state fire marshal in hopes of delaying construction of storm shelters, which has been required for all new school campuses built after Jan. 1. That would save the WCSD about $1.5 million in additional costs, Wilson estimated.
The district in late 2021 was approved for more than $17.25 million toward a then-estimated $23 million project to replace an aging junior high school with a 92,500-square-foot high school campus. Since then, according to a contractor connected to the project, construction costs have risen to about $320 per square foot, putting the estimated cost at $29.6 million.
The WCSD is asking legislators to increase state funding to $300 per square foot, which would cover $27.75 million.
If the district does not receive additional funding, Wilson said he will seek a waiver to delay construction of the new high school campus by a year in hopes that the construction costs will go down. The district had planned to begin construction in June of this year and have the new campus ready by August 2024. The district could draw money from its building fund, but Wilson said he doesn't want to reach into it extensively.
"We had such a beautiful plan as far as where we wanted all of our students," WCSD board President Donnie Hartsfield said. "The original plan was to have a courtyard where all of our students would stay in there. The only ones going outside would be the mechanics students and ROTC members or something like that. Two, we've got a school over here that's almost 100 years old. I have four generations that went through the school system here. I love Chapel, but I want us to build what we planned to build the first time. The state has one-and-a-half billion dollars in that rainy-day fund, and there are only three districts that got a millage decrease, so why not go ahead and say, there is a long process in getting this approved? Then we got hit with that big increase in lumber and labor costs. The state's got the money to fix this. Your community goes as your school goes."
The junior high school campus opened 77 years ago. Wilson, who graduated from Watson Chapel in 1967, said he attended all 12 grade levels there.
IN OTHER DISTRICT BUSINESS ...
High school students Mon'Tavion Haywood, Tanaesha Thomas and Kaliah Anderson were named Wildcat Warriors for February. All three were honored for their acts of leadership on campus and in the community.
High school faculty members Pamela King, Cameran Faucette and Scott Young were named district employees of the month.
A junior high school student was suspended for one calendar year after officials say photos were found on social media taken from the school office with a threatening message. The student and handguns were reportedly pictured in other images posted online.
Wilson offered suggestions to parents to ensure children's safety.
"The parents need to know, No. 1, what's on that kid's cellphone, if they can; know where they are and know what they're doing," he said. "They need to keep up and support that child's education and work together for the common good."
The WCSD accepted retirement letters from nurses Laura Glover and Yvonne Noel, custodian Clifton Jackson, and paraprofessional Pam Williams. Letters of resignation were accepted from senior band director Terrance Brock and secretary Maisha Turner.