Arkansas Delta school district becomes first to pursue transformation campus under LEARNS Act
State education commissioner will oversee Marvell-Elaine schools until contract approved
The State Board of Education held a public meeting at the Marvell-Elaine School District in Marvell Thursday morning, April 13, 2023. Stacy Smith, deputy commissioner with the Arkansas Department of Education, back to camera, presented various options available to the board concerning the disposition of the beleaguered school district. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)
The Arkansas State Board of Education voted Thursday to allow the Marvell-Elaine School District to avoid consolidation by becoming the state’s first “transformation campus.”
Community members applauded the news, including Republican state Rep. Mark McElroy of Tillar, who started dancing and hugging his neighbors inside the Marvell-Elaine High School gym.
McElroy said he was a “victim of consolidation” as a student and sponsored legislation this year to save Marvell-Elaine, which is in his district.
“I’m walking on air right now,” he said. “This community came together and everybody did their share.”
Under the LEARNS Act, a wide-ranging education bill signed into law in March, public school districts with a “D” or “F”-rating or in need of Level 5 – Intensive Support can partner with an open-enrollment public charter school or another state board-approved entity in good standing to create “a public school district transformation campus.”
Marvell-Elaine was also in fiscal distress from April 2019 to September 2021.
Stacy Smith, director of the Arkansas Department of Education’s Office of Coordinated Support and Service, presented three consolidation plans as well as the transformational campus plan to the state board Thursday and said the latter was ADE’s recommendation.
“There has to be a transformative change in this district,” she said. “What is currently happening in the classrooms is not okay. We are not providing the kids the education that they deserve.”
Marvell-Elaine was scheduled to be consolidated due to low enrollment under the nearly 20-year-old Public Education Reorganization Act, which requires the state Education Department to consolidate districts whose daily average membership falls below 350 for two consecutive years. The bill was signed into law in 2004 by former Gov. Mike Huckabee, the father of Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
Marvell-Elaine has 306 students and 92% are African American, according to ADE.
Act 377 of 2015 allows districts to submit a waiver to avoid consolidation, but the state board denied Marvell-Elaine’s request in December.
To allow the district to pursue a transformation contract, the state board voted Thursday to rescind December’s denial and grant the waiver on the minimum school district size.
Additionally, the board voted to assume authority over the district and remove the powers of the district’s board of directors, but allow them to operate under the direction and approval of the Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education in an advisory capacity through the end of the year.
The state board also directed the commissioner — Education Secretary Jacob Oliva — to assume authority over the district’s board of directors and begin discussions to enter into a transformational contract under the LEARNS Act.
Smith said there’s no deadline for entering a transformation contract, but said ADE will present a contract, once it’s comfortable, to the state board for approval.
“I want to assure this community to let them know that we are fully invested and we are fully committed to rolling up our sleeves and doing whatever it takes to make this community thrive,” Oliva said.
Smith said she’s received three different proposals from a charter school organization, a pair of education cooperatives and a community organization about ideas for helping the Marvell-Elaine School District. Under the transformation contract, she said ADE will put out an “all call” for proposals.
Sixteen people spoke against consolidation, including Danielle Wright and her 10-year-old son. A paraprofessional in the district, Wright said she was excited by the board’s decision and hopes state officials will do what they can to help Marvell-Elaine.
“We need consistency, we do need that,” Wright said. “We need transparency where the administrators are working with both districts, and whatever organization’s willing to work with the district, I’m praying that they allow them to come on in so that we can help our students be successful.”
One of the biggest concerns with consolidation was longer bus rides for students in the Elaine and Snow Lake communities, who already travel more than 20 and 40 miles, respectively, to Marvell-Elaine’s two schools.
Elaine Mayor Lisa Hicks-Gilbert said consolidation would have meant a third generation of students from her community would be bussed to school and “we’ve got to do something different in Arkansas.”
“I know the state can do better, and I believe the LEARNS Act is going to help us make that change here in the Delta we’ve needed for a long time,” she said.
The LEARNS Act has been controversial — particularly for rural school administrators, who have voiced concerns about losing students under some of the new law’s provisions.
Legislators worked to address some of those concerns with two separate consolidation bills that have now been signed into law.
Act 461 removes the requirement to mandatorily consolidate school districts whose daily average membership falls below 350 for two consecutive years. The law does preserve the right for districts to consolidate if they so choose.
Sponsored by McElroy, House Bill 1504 creates consolidation exceptions for districts that are classified as in need of Level 5 – Intensive support and that have students who would have to ride a bus more than 40 miles to attend the new consolidated district.
If both conditions exist, the state would assume authority over the school district and fire the superintendent, but it could not close a public school.
The bill has an emergency clause so it went into effect when it was signed this week.
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