The Pine Bluff School District (PBSD) has been declared as fiscally distressed. On Thursday, the State Board of Education voted unanimously to dissolve the district’s board and fire the interim superintendent.
“It’s sad that it had to happen, but we were given many chances to fix the issue and we didn’t,” said PBSD board member Henry Dabner.
This makes the second Jefferson County school district that’s under state control. Two years ago, Dollarway’s district was taken over by the state and declared fiscally distressed.
Mike Hernandez, deputy commissioner for the Arkansas Department of Higher Education, told the board that there has been a consistent trend of a decreasing balance at the Pine Bluff School District since the 2010-11 fiscal year.
The balance at that time was $13 million dollars when previous PBSD superintendent Frank Anthony left the district.
The district is projected to have a negative balance of $2 million by April 2019.
Hernandez said that he had worked with previous PBSD superintendent Michael Robinson, but he “went in the opposite direction.”
“We had provided training, we had put together plans that would prevent the district from getting into this situation,” said Hernandez.
The Pine Bluff School Board voted in June to buy out Robinson’s contract for $50,000 at his request. The board then appointed Monica McMurry to a one-year term and hired Anthony on as the superintendent’s consultant.
Cindy Smith, fiscal and support services coordinator with the Department of Education, reported that there had been added positions, unnecessary spending and constant facility maintenance that were causing the budget decrease.
The department also said that the constant decline in student enrollment was a factor in the challenges the district is facing as well. It was stated that the district had lost over 300 students in one year and has lost another 260 students this fiscal year.
According to Ark. Code Ann. 6-20-1907, a school district identified as being in fiscal distress may not incur any debt without prior written approval by the Education Department. “Any debt” includes any employment contract, vendor contract, lease, loan, purchase, or any other obligation that will increase the district’s financial obligations, accounts payable, or its liabilities. The PBSD is required to obtain this prior written approval from the Department.
The Board of Education decided that Education Commissioner Johnny Key will be in control of turning the school district around until a state-chosen superintendent is put into place.
“I will determine a district leader,” Key said. “We are committed to turning this district around and doing what’s best for the children.”
During the public comments portion of the meeting, Dexter Lee, former human capitalist specialist for PBSD, expressed his concerns.
“We have struggled to maintain order in the district due to our fiscal issues,” Lee said. “We have students learning street skills to survive in Pine Bluff, but they are not learning the skills that will take them out of the streets. Please think about our kids and their future.”
Lee went on to say that the people who are suffering and paying the price now had nothing to do with the wrong decisions that had been made. Due to the statements made during the public comments portion of the meeting, the board will reconvene in October to discuss the academic standing of the district.
Dabner said that he has enjoyed his time working for the district, and he will continue to volunteer.
“It is a sad day, but also a good day because our kids will now get what they deserve,” Dabner said. “We have done a horrible job and we were not a student-based school district.”
Dabner went on to express that the citizens of Pine Bluff “need to start making better decisions as far as who they vote into leadership positions.”
Ryan Watley, CEO of Go Forward Pine Bluff, addressed the state board during the public comment portion of Thursday’s meeting. He said he spoke on behalf of not just GFPB but also Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington, Tommy May, who heads the Simmons Foundation, and Mary Liddell with the Pine Bluff branch of the NAACP, who were all in attendance.
“We support the appointment of Ms. Monica McMurry with Mr. Frank Anthony as her consultant,” Watley said. “Yet, we have no confidence in the current school board’s collective capacity to navigate these challenges. Pine Bluff does have strong financial and academic leaders readily available to assist with solving these challenges.
“However, the district is in such disrepair that awaiting years to democratically assemble a board would be far too late. State control of the district’s finances does not address the systemic challenges. Everyone assembled here is a product of the immeasurable opportunity to succeed. Our children are not being afforded this opportunity and the vibrant future of our community is dependent upon providing a competitive public education.
“All factors considered, a state of emergency must be declared. We request the state board of education exercise its full and rightful powers for complete intervention of the district.
“Education is the most important pillar to the Pine Bluff Community. We aim to improve education in the areas of leadership, curriculum, accountability, and recruitment of certified teachers.”