Something happened last week that has not happened in four years: The school board for the Pine Bluff School District met.
There are a couple of distinct caveats to the board. First, the members are appointed and not elected. And the second is that the decisions they make have to then be approved by Jacob Oliva, the new head of the state Education Department.
One could consider this a school board with training wheels, as well it should be.
The district collapsed from a fiscal standpoint years ago, forcing the state to swoop in to save it from itself and to save it from the leadership it was not getting – for whatever reason – from its school board.
To complicate matters, the Dollarway School District, which sopped up all of the consolidated school districts from across the river over the years, itself failed and was combined with the Pine Bluff School District. This is not a job for the timid or fainthearted.
The seven new members chosen to lead the combined district were selected from a list of people who applied for the positions. Then they received some training. And last week, they raised their hands and were sworn in and will begin work with new Superintendent Jennifer Barbaree.
The new members are being heralded as the leaders the district needs at this crucial time.
"I see professionalism" among the new board members, retired high school teacher Mattie Collins said.
"I came here because I had never seen or met the superintendent," said Mayor Shirley Washington, herself a retired educator. "I knew most of the board members, so I was always impressed because they chose people who are serious-minded about education. All of them understand the importance of education, and they'll stay focused on that."
The seven are: Lori Walker Guelache, Ricky Whitmore Jr., Dr. Charles Colen Jr., Dr. Stephen Broughton, Dr. Sederick Charles Rice, Lozanne Calhoun and Jomeka Edwards.
According to a story in The Commercial, "each expressed their deep interest in education and the community during their introductory statements," and several of them have experience in education, including current University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff professors Rice and Colen.
"I think we have a board of professionals," Washington said. "You need to have people who understand the impact of every decision made, because we have people who understand the positive and negative impacts."
We are not sure what this says about "local control" of a school district, and by that, we mean a locally elected school board that acts fairly autonomously. The district had one of those, and the wheels fell off. So will this hand-picked board be able to do any better? Well, that is the hope, of course. And will the progress continue once school board members are elected again? That is to be determined, for sure. But one step at a time. Right now, the members are in spring training, to use a sports analogy. They are going through the motions, but the time to register wins and losses is down the road.
Three cheers to Barbara Warren, the former superintendent, who brought the one district, and then both districts, along to this moment in time when enough progress was made to put in place this limited-authority board. Let us not forget that she brought the district through some pretty dark days, even if she was unceremoniously sidelined for no stated reason.
We wish the new board members the best. Even with state education officials looking over its shoulder, the school board has its work cut out for it. We long for the day when people flock to Pine Bluff because of its stellar school district. Those days did exist, but it has been a while.