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Pine Bluff School District regains full local control

by I.C. Murrell | September 16, 2023 at 4:01 a.m.
Pine Bluff School District board Chairman Sederick Charles Rice, left, and Superintendent Jennifer Barbaree make a presentation to the Arkansas State Board of Education during its regular meeting Friday, Sept. 15, 2023, at the Pine Bluff Convention Center. (Pine Bluff Commercial/I.C. Murrell)

Arkansas State Board of Education members voted unanimously to return full local control to the Pine Bluff School District immediately during a regular meeting Friday at the Pine Bluff Convention Center.

The nine-member board -- which had one member absent -- took up state Education Secretary Jacob Oliva's suggestion to move the September meeting to the city where PBSD officials made a case for nearly three hours that it can operate with all decisions finalized at the local level. The 7-0 decision -- board Chairwoman Sarah Moore of Stuttgart did not have to cast a vote -- came five years after the state board responded to community members' requests to take over a district that had just been placed under fiscal distress.

By law, the state board had to either return local control to the PBSD, annex or consolidate it with another district, or reconstitute it with another form of government after five years of control.

In her recommendation for full local control, state education deputy commissioner Stacy Smith told the state board the PBSD has met criteria to exit Level 5 intensive support and receive Level 4 support from state officials. This means state officials will continue to help the district with academic and fiscal challenges and report monthly on the progress of the district through next September.

"I think it's clear that we're not giving control back to the school district. The community took it back," state board member Adrienne Woods of Bentonville said before the vote.

About 100 supporters of the district, along with Arkansas Department of Education support staff, gathered in the Convention Center ballroom to hear Superintendent Jennifer Barbaree and PBSD board President Sederick Charles Rice make their cases to remove the "limited-authority" status from the district board, which was appointed and installed last winter. The supporters erupted with applause following the unanimous vote.

Rice asked the supporters to stand up when he formally requested to from the board local control and continued fiscal support from the Education Department's Division of Elementary and Secondary Education.

"I'm excited. We're blessed," Rice said. "We made the argument. We've got a great superintendent. We've got a great board. We've got a great community. We're moving forward."

Barbaree has scored two major victories in less than nine months on the job, after working with Smith in the Education Department's Office of Coordinated Support and Service. Last month, PBSD voters approved a millage increase toward construction of a new high school.

"You're only as good as your support and your team," Barbaree said. "And, so, we couldn't do this without the support from the department, support from the board, support from our community, but most importantly our administrators and our teachers and parents, everyone that's here. This is a victory for Pine Bluff. We did it and we're going to keep going."

Smith said to see the locals celebrate another win for their district is an amazing feeling.

"You can hear and feel and see the excitement in this room right now," Smith said. "This is not easy work. The work is not over. Super-proud of Dr. Barbaree. Super-proud of the limited-authority board and the community that came together."

State board members began their day touring the Forrest Park/Greenvile Pre-K campus and Pine Bluff High School, as Barbaree and other district leaders pointed out improvements made in the PBSD in recent years.

Nearly all of those who spoke during public comments petitioned the state board for local control, including district parent Trammell Howell. She was among those pleading for state control five years ago.

"This is an exciting day," Howell said. "It's a day we've been looking for and working hard for, going to state board meetings for, to let them know our community is here and concerned about where we are. We know we have to put more work in."

As part of the motion by Kathy McFetridge-Rollins of Springdale to restore local control, the PBSD will conduct school board elections every year, starting with one seat each in 2024, 2025 and 2026 and two seats each in 2027 and 2028, as Rice recommended. The current board was appointed by a state board committee and installed last winter.

Each term, a lot for which Rice said would be drawn to determine which will be up for election first, will be for five years. Rice argued this cycle would maintain continuity among board members and confidence in the board from the public.

Prior to voting on local control, the state board voted 5-2 against a plan suggested by member Jeff Wood of Little Rock for four-year terms at each position, starting with three seats up for election in 2024. Woods and Wood voted in favor.

The majority of PBSD stakeholders in attendance applauded that decision as well, but not everyone. Charline Wright, chairperson of the PBSD Concerned Stakeholders for Consolidation, said she is happy local control was restored in the PBSD but argued that local decision-making is driven by a locally elected board,citing guidelines by the Education Department published when the fate of the Dollarway School District was determined in December 2020. That district was annexed into the PBSD.

"I feel that PBSD was denied our rights of a locally elected board in the same manner as being denied consolidation, a full-time superintendent and the usage of our annexation monies – $3.5 million – to maintain a failed Dollarway School District," Wright said. "Voting rights came with sacrifices, and I don't feel good when someone takes them away."

Rice argued he understands democracy but also continuity.

"Democracy speaks, but democracy also speaks to qualified candidates being able to do the job," Rice said. "These are our kids, and we have to make the best decisions going forward."

Smith revealed statistics on the district's academic progress since the previous PBSD board was dissolved in September 2018 and the state board affirmed takeover the following November.

State board member Lisa Hunter, a Pine Bluff High School alumna who lives in White Hall, said while she likes the narrative of the PBSD's growth over the past five years, she wants district officials to also report to the board numbers demonstrating further growth in the district with hopes that each of the district's kindergarten- through 12th-grade campuses can score better than a C on a future Arkansas School Report Card, as released annually by the state Education Department. Each of those schools have scored either a D or F on the most recent report card from the 2021-22 school year.

"I think we set a good precedent by making sure we are putting students first," Barbaree said. "Pine Bluff School District is going to be about our students, and we're going to keep moving forward."

  photo  Pine Bluff School District assistant superintendent Kelvin Gragg talks with state board members including Lisa Hunter and Jeff Wood, background, during their tour of the school Friday, Sept. 15, 2023. (Pine Bluff Commercial/I.C. Murrell)
  photo  Arkansas Education Secretary Jacob Oliva talks with Pine Bluff School District Superintendent Jennifer Barbaree during a tour of the Pine Bluff High School Academy building before a state board meeting Friday, Sept. 15, 2023. (Pine Bluff Commercial/I.C. Murrell)
  photo  Pine Bluff School District Board Chairman Sederick Charles Rice, foreground, and other district supporters give a standing ovation after the Arkansas State Board of Education restores full local control to the district Friday at the Pine Bluff Convention Center. (Pine Bluff Commercial/I.C. Murrell)

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