Arkansas education leaders on Friday authorized the tiny, state-controlled Marvell-Elaine School District to enter into a first-of-its-kind-in-Arkansas "transformation contract" with an outside entity for the day-to-day management of the academically troubled system in Phillips County.
The Arkansas Board of Education at a special-called afternoon meeting voted 6-0 to permit the 306-student district --represented by Education Secretary Jacob Oliva, who acts in lieu of a school board for the district -- to enter into a three-year contract through June 2026 with FEF-Arkansas.
FEF-Arkansas is a newly formed nonprofit affiliate of Friendship Education Foundation Inc., which is the sponsor of the open-enrollment Friendship Aspire Academy charter schools in Little Rock and Pine Bluff and soon in North Little Rock.
Transformation contracts between school districts and third party entities -- including charter school operators -- are permissible for the first time in Arkansas as a provision of the new Arkansas LEARNS Act or Act 237 of 2023, which was championed earlier this year by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
LEARNS stands for literacy, empowerment, accountability, readiness, networking and safety.
Ali Noland, a Little Rock attorney who is representing a Marvell-Elaine citizens group and the mayor of Elaine in her individual capacity, argued in remarks and in a letter to the state board that an emergency clause attached to the LEARNS Act was not properly written nor properly approved by lawmakers earlier this year, invalidating state Education Board action in regard to a transformation contract.
Noland said her clients intend to sue to stop the Marvell-Elaine and FEF-Arkansas arrangement.
Education Board members proceeded to vote to move ahead with a contract after hearing objections from Noland, Grassroots Arkansas C0-chairman Anika Whitfield and former Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock. Whitfield criticized the short notice for the special meeting, which came Thursday afternoon. She questioned why the meeting wasn't held within the Marvell-Elaine community.
State officials emphasized that the $200,000 a year, 21-page negotiated contract does not mean an end to the Marvell-Elaine district.
"We are not closing the Marvell-Elaine School District and turning it into a charter school," Oliva said prior to Friday's meeting. "That is the furthest thing from the truth."
"What the transformational component of the LEARNS Act does is allow the school district to contract with a charter school or an external operator to provide certain layers of academic support or, in this case, provide the leadership to help manage and run the day-to-day operations."
The contract includes a transitional two-month period to prepare for the coming school year as well as the option for renewal beyond the three years. The Marvell-Elaine district will pay FEF for its services, starting with $50,000 for the May and June transition period and $200,000 for the first year -- the 2023-24 school year. The transition period will enable FEF to employ staff and recruit teachers as well as develop measures for progress. Those could include enrollment numbers and employee retention rates as well as student achievement.
Oliva and Stacy Smith, a deputy commissioner of the state Division of Elementary and Secondary Education, called the arrangement "cost neutral" as the district would otherwise pay the same amount or more in salaries and benefits for a superintendent and other administrative staff.
Smith, who presented the recommendation for the transformation contract plan, said the Marvell-Elaine Elementary and High schools are the lowest performing traditional schools in the state. Eighty-three percent of the elementary pupils scored in need of support in English/language arts on the ACT Aspire exams as did 87% of high school students, she said. The five-year average on the ACT college entrance exam was 14.98 on a 1-to-36 scale.
The state's first transformation contract comes after the state Education Board on April 14 took control of the 306-student Marvell-Elaine district in Phillips County, rescinding its previous order that the district be annexed to one or more other districts.
At the same April 14 meeting, the state board directed Oliva to explore entering into a contract with a third-party organization to operate the district -- as permitted by the LEARNS Act.
The LEARNS Act enables a school district that has a D- or F-rated school or is in need of "Level 5 -- intensive support" to be exempted from related sanctions if the school board contracts with a charter school or another entity to operate a public school district transformation campus.
Marvell-Elaine meets both criteria as it is in Level 5 of the state's accountability system and both its elementary and high schools have state-applied F grades on an A-F scale.
Oliva and his staff invited organizations interested in managing the Marvell-Elaine system to apply.
Friendship Education Foundation Inc. responded, as did Charter One, an education management organization with roots in Arizona; and Grassroots Arkansas, a Little Rock-based community organization that is co-chaired by community activists Whitfield and Charles Bolden.
The three organizations were interviewed by a committee made up of Division of Elementary and Secondary Education staff as well as Larry Prowell, Clyde Williams, Natasha Brown, Fileshia Powell and Lee Guest of Phillips County. FEF-Arkansas was the committee's unanimous selection, Smith said. The contract as required by the law was negotiated by the local district -- with Oliva in place of an elected school board-- and FEF, she also said.
"I think the transformation contract is going to allow us to think differently about how we do school improvement and not have to take over districts," Smith said.
Ideally, she said it would be best to see contracts instituted earlier, before there is a crisis, she said, adding that the Marvell-Elaine district is a critical situation "in which we are not serving students well at all."
The Friendship organization had been working to familiarize itself with the Marvell-Elaine School District and community over the past several weeks in anticipation of a transformation contract.
"This opportunity to become part of this era of transformation is important work," FEF Arkansas Chief Executive Officer Joe Harris said in a statement after the board vote. "We think what we learn here will help school districts in similar situations across the state."
FEF-Arkansas leaders said they will immediately begin efforts to re-enroll and recruit new students and hire employees to the school system.
To that end, FEF-Arkansas is hosting a job fair on Monday in Pine Bluff to find employees for the Marvell-Elaine system.
Current employees of the Marvell-Elaine district are eligible to apply for jobs in the transformation district, Harris said.
Other plans for the transformation contract district, Harris said, include:
Expanding the oversight responsibilities of Phong Tran, southern region superintendent of Friendship charter schools, to include the Marvell-Elaine schools.
Changing the Marvell-Elaine school names to Marvell-Elaine Elementary -- powered by FEF-Arkansas; Marvell-Elaine Middle -- powered by FEF-Arkansas; and Marvell-Elaine High School -- powered by FEF-Arkansas.
Making academics a priority and expanding athletics and arts programs.
Establishing a parent/community resource center at the Marvell-Elaine campus.
Possibly transforming long-bus rides for students into academic time through the use of chrome books and iPads on wifi-equipped buses.
Requiring uniforms for students.
Retaining the district's colors and the Mustang mascot.
Additionally, Harris said the FEF-Arkansas organization will explore with parents and community members in Marvell-Elaine the possibility of altering the school calendar to extend the school days, operate four-day school weeks and/or go to a 12-month school year.
In her letter and comments to the Education Board, Noland said her clients were frustrated that they were not included in the process used to select the third-party organization to manage the school district and were unable to view a draft of the transformation contract.
She also argued that the emergency clause to enact the Arkansas LEARNS Act was not written or approved in compliance with state law and, as a result, the act will not go into effect until later this year.
"On behalf of my clients, I am writing to advise you that the State Board of Education cannot legally vote today to authorize a 'transformation contract' with Friendship Education Foundation," Noland wrote.
"Act 237 contains an emergency clause which specifically references Section 14, the section establishing the mechanism for 'transformation contracts.' However, the emergency clause in the LEARNS Act was not passed by two-thirds of the Arkansas General Assembly during a separate roll-call vote after the passage of the bill, as is required by Article 5, Section 1 of the Constitution of the State of Arkansas," she wrote.
"When passing the LEARNS Act and several other bills this session, the Arkansas General Assembly failed to take a separate roll-call vote as to the emergency clause, as called for in Article 1, Section 5, instead taking one vote and recording it twice. This failure is visible in the videos available online of the House and Senate votes approving the passage of the LEARNS Act," Noland also said.
"In practical terms, the failure to take a second roll-call vote as to the existence of an emergency denied individual members of the Arkansas General Assembly the opportunity to vote for the bill but against the emergency clause."
She also took issue with the wording of the emergency clause in the LEARNS Act, saying that the facts stated in the clause do not meet the legal threshold for an emergency declaration.
"Should the State Board of Education choose to disregard the fact that the LEARNS Act is not yet the law and move forward with a vote today authorizing a 'transformation contract' with Friendship Education Foundation, my clients are prepared to pursue all available legal remedies in court," Noland wrote.
Cecillea Pond-Mayo, chief information officer for the Arkansas House of Representatives, said in response to the emergency clause legislative issue that processes are decided by lawmakers.
"Emergency clause votes are recorded separately in the House Journal," Pond-Mayo said in a brief statement. "Voting in the House is a matter of process which the House has the authority to determine."