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Fiscal-distress tag put on Pine Bluff schools; state takes control

The Pine Bluff School District is now under state control -- with no locally elected school board and with a state-appointed superintendent to be named as soon as today by Arkansas Education Commissioner Johnny Key.

The district joins the Dollarway School District in Jefferson County to be under the direction of the state. The Little Rock School District and the Earle School District also operate with state-appointed superintendents and no elected school boards.

Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington, top business leaders and now former School Board members looked on Thursday afternoon as the Arkansas Board of Education voted to classify the district of more than 3,000 students as being in "fiscal distress" because of spending practices that threaten to deplete all operating revenue before the end of this school year.

The Education Board followed that vote with a second 8-0 vote to remove the district's elected seven-member school board and its interim superintendent, Monica McMurray, who can return to a curriculum position in the district. In that same motion, the board authorized Key to act in the place of the school board, appoint a superintendent who will report to him and take any other action necessary to remove the district from fiscal distress.

Schools will be open today to students and staff members in the Pine Bluff district, said Mike Hernandez, state superintendent for the Office of Coordinated Support and Service, shortly after the board's two votes on Pine Bluff.

Hernandez, whose job is to assist districts in academic and fiscal trouble, will be in Pine Bluff this morning to oversee the immediate transition of the system from local control to state control.

After the votes, Education Board Chairman Jay Barth of Little Rock thanked Pine Bluff residents and school district employees who have worked hard to support the district's students.

Some of those in attendance had addressed the board, saying that a state of emergency existed in the district and they asked for the state takeover.

"The department is now in position to work with you all and we are very eager partners in continuing that process so that things will begin to turn around in the Pine Bluff School District and city of Pine Bluff," Barth said.

Key recalled a recent meeting with a group of Jefferson County teenagers.

"What I saw in those young men was great potential," Key said. "It is my belief that with what we have shown we can do in Dollarway in partnership with that team there, we will make every effort to do the same thing with a team in Pine Bluff. I'm going to make sure Dr. Hernandez stays working closely with the team there.

"I want you to know, community members, that you have our commitment to turn things around, not just fiscally," Key said. "We want to make sure students have the opportunities for education that you wanted for yourselves, you want for your kids and we want for all kids in Arkansas. I make that commitment to you," Key said to applause from the audience.

Greg Rogers, assistant commissioner for fiscal services at the state Department of Education, and Cindy Smith, coordinator of fiscal services and support for the agency, told the board that the Pine Bluff district was on track to end the current school year with no more than $600,000 in carry-over funds for the next year but is more likely to end up being $2 million in the red without immediate action to cut expenses.

The two financial officers warned that the district was in jeopardy of failing to meet payroll obligations by April 2019 if current spending is left unchecked.

Smith told the Education Board that the department staff had provided recommendations in recent years to former Superintendent Michael Robinson on ways to cut expenses but initial progress on that waned in more recent months.

The expenditures, including pay raises this year to administrators, coupled with student enrollment declines of about 350 last year are contributing to deficit spending on a monthly basis. Additionally, the district transferred expenses totaling as much $528,000 from last fiscal year to this fiscal year. The system owes as much as $130,000 to the IRS, and is facing costs from a recent court case, Rogers said.

The identification of the district as being in fiscal distress -- defined as when yearly expenditures routinely exceed revenue -- comes at a time when the district's leadership is in transition and student academic achievement is low.

The School Board voted in late June to buy out Robinson's superintendent contract for $50,000. Robinson had held the job for two school years. The School Board selected McMurray, who was the district's executive director of learning services, to be interim superintendent.

Herman Horace, president of the Pine Bluff School Board, attended the state Board of Education meeting Thursday but refused after the meeting to make any comment about the state action.

Any district that is classified by the state Education Board as being in fiscal distress must publish that status and the reasons for it in a general circulation newspaper, according to state rules and laws on fiscal distress.

The district also must submit to the Education Department a written financial improvement plan to correct deficiencies in its business operations. That plan is subject to the Education Department's approval, revisions or replacement.

Board member Brett Williamson of El Dorado asked Education Department staff members whether the district under state control can keep the lights on and meet payroll.

Rogers said that the district has time to make some financial changes before the cash flow ebbs so low in April that it would be difficult to pay employees.

Hernandez told the board that department staff members tried to suggest changes to the Pine Bluff district leaders.

"It was not a lack of a plan, it was lack of execution of a plan," he said.

Ryan Watley, executive director of Go Forward Pine Bluff, a coalition of community members and businesses to support Pine Bluff's economy and educational systems, said the organization had no confidence in the operation of the school board and that the district was in a state of emergency.

He asked that the state Education Board exercise its complete powers to aid the system.

Dexter Lee, an assistant principal at Pine Bluff High School and formerly the district's human capital officer, said there are good employees and students in the district and that those who are suffering in the system are not those who created the system's problems.

Jay Barth

Johnny Key

Arkansas Department of Educations appointees - Mike Hernandez

A Section on 09/14/2018

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