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State takes over Marvell-Elaine schools

LEARNS Act ruling blocks plan for 3rd-party operator by Bill Bowden | July 8, 2023 at 7:33 a.m.
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 state Department of Education will take over day-to-day operations of the Marvell-Elaine School District because of a judge's June 30 decision that the Arkansas LEARNS Act cannot go into effect until Aug. 1.

In a special meeting Friday afternoon, the state Board of Education "had to take emergency action to save the Marvell-Elaine School District or risk further harming students and putting them behind their peers in the state," according to a news release from the Education Department.

With school set to begin next month, something had to be done -- and done soon, Stacy Smith, deputy commissioner for the Division of Elementary and Secondary Education, told the state board at Friday's meeting.

"I want to be very clear that this is a very difficult situation," said Smith. "Getting ready and set up for school to start in a month is a huge task. ... We've got to get the school open. We've got to get staff hired. We've got to set the calendar."

The board followed her advice, voting to remove Superintendent Katina Ray and the local School Board, which had been serving in an advisory capacity since April. It was a voice vote with no audible nays.

The move allows Education Secretary Jacob Oliva to name a new superintendent and proceed with planning for an Aug. 1 LEARNS enactment to keep the district open, according to the Education Department.

In November, the state board classified the Marvell-Elaine School District as in need of "Level 5 -- intensive support" pursuant to the Arkansas Educational Support and Accountability Act.

With an enrollment of 306, the tiny school district had the highest expense per student in the state -- at more than $19,000 -- and the lowest overall student achievement rate.

On April 13, the Board of Education met in Marvell, and "community members overwhelmingly expressed their desire for the district to remain open," said Oliva.

At its April meeting, the state board rescinded its previous decision in November to consolidate the school district into neighboring districts. The board instead voted to place the district under state authority, retain the superintendent through the 2022-2023 school year, and keep a limited authority board.

The board also directed the district to enter a transformation contract with a third party to run the day-to-day operations of the district this fall, according to the Education Department.

FEF-Arkansas, an affiliate of the Friendship Education Foundation, a charter school management organization, was contracted to take over operation of the school district. That's something allowed under the LEARNS Act, which Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed into law in March, calling it "the largest overhaul of the state's education system in Arkansas history."

But a lawsuit was filed May 8. The plaintiffs, a group of Phillips County residents and two public education activists, argue that lawmakers didn't follow the Arkansas Constitution when approving the LEARNS Act's emergency clause, a parliamentary move to make a law take effect immediately.

The case bounced back and forth between Pulaski County Circuit Court and the Arkansas Supreme Court, with Pulaski County Circuit Judge Herb Wright blocking implementation of the LEARNS Act until Aug. 1.

"It's unfortunate that a frivolous, politically motivated lawsuit is interfering with the department's efforts to carry out the wishes of the school and local community," Oliva said through the Education Department's news release. "Every day that passes that delays enactment, student learning is in jeopardy."

"The decision made by the State Board of Education today puts the burden of supporting the Marvell Elaine School District back into the hands of the Arkansas Department of Education," according to a news release from Citizens for Arkansas Public Education and Students, a group behind an effort to repeal the LEARNS Act. "ADE's decades-long failure to provide the resources and support MESD needed, along with their intent to sell off the management of the district to an outside group, provides the incentive for ADE to fail more districts in our state. And they will."

Responding to a question in Friday's meeting, Oliva said if Friendship backs out, the Education Department would still need to "seek the help of an external partner."

"We would still move forward with a transformational contract," he said. "If it's not with Friendship, we'll put out another bid, go through that process and see if we can get a high-quality partner to give access to the high-quality education that those students deserve."

Smith said over 190 pupils in the Marvell-Elaine School District have expressed an interest, so far, in attending school there in August.

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.

On May 5, the state Education Board had voted unanimously to direct Oliva to enter into a three-year contract with FEF-Arkansas to manage the Marvell-Elaine district in Phillips County.

Other school districts currently under state authority are Helena-West Helena, Pine Bluff, Lee County and Earle.

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

Print Headline: State steps in to run Marvell school district


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