Arkansas education board approves first ‘transformation contract’ under LEARNS Act
Opponent says ‘defective’ emergency clause invalidates law
Little Rock attorney Ali Noland, at lectern, tells Arkansas Board of Education members on May 5, 2023, that they do not have the authority to grant the Marvell-Elaine School District permission to enter into a transformation contract with the Friendship Education Foundation. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)
The Arkansas State Board of Education on Friday approved a first-of-its-kind arrangement to allow a charter school company to run a public school district under threat of closure.
The board voted in favor of a recommendation for the Marvell-Elaine District to enter into a “transformation contract” with the Friendship Education Foundation, the first such agreement under Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ signature education law: the LEARNS Act.
Some in the Marvell-Elaine community are concerned about the agreement, even arguing on Friday that the board didn’t have the authority to approve the contract.
The partnership with Friendship was an answered prayer for other community members, like Fileshia Powell, who prayed the district would remain open so her youngest daughter could graduate from their local school next May.
Under the three-year contract, Friendship, a charter management company, will “oversee, manage and operate” Marvell-Elaine, which will remain a public school district. The contract’s initial term is from July 1 to June 30, 2026, at which point both parties could decide to extend it. They could also agree to terminate the contract earlier.
The state’s education commissioner, Education Secretary Jacob Oliva, may terminate the agreement for cause if Friendship fails to make reasonable progress toward growth in student achievement after the first academic year or breaches any of the contract’s terms of conditions.
The foundation will be compensated $50,000 for the transition term, which lasts until June 30, and $200,000 annually during the initial term. Marvell-Elaine is financially responsible for the payments, which are payable monthly. Quarterly financial reports must be submitted to the commissioner.
The district will pay for the salaries, fringe benefits and employment taxes for all district employees except for the superintendent, director of facilities and director of operations, who will be Friendship employees.
During the transition period, Friendship will assess current personnel, recruit additional employees and can enter into employment contracts that the state’s education commissioner may object to within five business days.
The contract also requires both parties to agree upon yearly performance measures, like academic improvement and an increase in educator licensure.
The state board voted in April to allow Marvell-Elaine to pursue this new contract as an alternative to consolidation. The rural Phillips County district was at risk of its second consolidation due to low enrollment.
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 has a Level 5 classification and both of its schools have an “F”-rating. The district was also in fiscal distress from April 2019 to September 2021.
At April’s meeting, the board voted to assume authority over the district and remove the powers of the district’s board of directors, while allowing them to operate in an advisory capacity under the education commissioner through the end of the year.
The state board also directed Oliva to begin discussions to enter into a transformational contract under the LEARNS Act.
The Arkansas Department of Education issued a request for letters of intent on April 14. Three entities expressed interest during the four-day application window — Charter One, a charter school service provider based in Arizona; Grassroots Arkansas, a Little Rock-based community organization; and the Friendship Education Foundation, a charter management organization that manages the Friendship Aspire Academy schools in Arkansas.
Of the three applicants, Powell said she preferred Friendship because she liked seeing how engaged their students were during a tour of their campuses earlier this year. Powell participated in an advisory group composed of community stakeholders who listened to applicants’ interviews with ADE officials and provided input.
The group unanimously recommended Friendship, but said Grassroots Arkansas could be a good partner for improving education in the community, ADE deputy commissioner Stacy Smith said.
Three of Powell’s children are Marvell-Elaine alumni who’ve attended college. Her youngest son will become her third college graduate on Saturday, and Powell pointed to her children’s educational successes as examples of what the district is capable of doing.
“I know what our kids at Marvell can do. We have fallen down, but I know we can get back up,” she said. “I know we can get back up as long as we got somebody in place that can help us.”
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During public comment Friday, Ali Noland, a lawyer representing the Elaine mayor and Marvell community members, said her clients were frustrated about the board gathering to vote in a special meeting when the contract was not made public beforehand.
She also argued that the LEARNS Act has a defective emergency clause, meaning the board does not have the legal authority to grant Marvell-Elaine permission to pursue a contract with Friendship. Noland said her clients are prepared to file a challenge in court.
The emergency clause argument has been circulating in political circles for several days. Some have argued that the state House of Representatives and Senate failed to comply with Article 5 of the Arkansas Constitution, which requires separate roll-call votes on emergency clauses.
It has been common practice for both chambers to take one vote on both a bill and its emergency clause and record them separately. (Emergency clauses require a two-thirds majority to pass and allow laws to take effect immediately instead of 91 days after a session adjourns sine die)
In a statement, a House spokesman said: “Emergency clause votes are recorded separately in the House Journal. Voting in the House is a matter of process which the House has the authority to determine.”
Grassroots Arkansas co-chair Anika Whitfield said she was disappointed with ADE for barely giving a day’s notice for Friday’s meeting, limiting community participation from “parents that are suffering economically” and cannot make the two-hour drive to Little Rock.
Whitfield also questioned why the board isn’t holding the Division of Elementary and Secondary Education more responsible for Marvell-Elaine’s struggles because it’s their job to ensure the district has the tools it needs to be successful.
“So asking for a transformation contract, in fact, is an admission that they failed, but also a horrible, a horrible solution — and that is to monetize these children and to say that what is most important is to financially save money by giving a contract to a charter management organization rather than saying we’re going to do the right thing by these students,” she said.
Charting a new course
Friendship Charter Schools was founded in 1997 in Washington D.C. In 2014, the Friendship Education Foundation was established as a charter management organization to expand the group’s school model nationally.
Friendship Education Foundation CEO Joe Harris said the group opened its first Arkansas school in Pine Bluff in 2018 after being invited by the Walton Family Foundation, a major supporter of charter schools. That elementary school along with one in Little Rock have both earned a “C”-rating from ADE. Friendship opened a third elementary school in Pine Bluff in December.
In addition to opening new schools, the organization has also acquired Covenant Keepers Charter School in Little Rock, the Hannah School for Dyslexia in Maumelle and Southeast Arkansas Preparatory High School in Pine Bluff. In March, Friendship received state board approval to accept a transfer of three Lighthouse Charter Schools.
Harris first reached out to Marvell-Elaine after community members implored officials not to close their schools during the state board’s March 9 meeting. Harris said he was moved by their testimony and was asked by “a number of people at high levels, “starting in the governor’s office,” to reach out to the district.
The result was a special school board meeting on March 27 where Harris shared information about the organization, including how it has “a long history of serving kids that have the greatest needs” because the majority of its students are “Black and brown kids from disadvantaged communities.”
Ninety-two percent of Marvell-Elaine’s 306 students are African American, according to ADE.
That board meeting resulted in a tour of Friendship campuses in Pine Bluff a few days later and a community meeting on April 3. Former school board member Mark English said the overall goal was to keep the district’s two campuses open in Marvell, so this new partnership with Friendship was the best option they had at the time.
However, English said he has concerns, the biggest of which is what will happen after this initial “transformation.” There will have to be a second one, he said, when Friendship hands the district back over to the community.
Attracting talent to support change in the district is going to be difficult, English said, even with the LEARNS Act raising the minimum teacher salary to $50,000.
“That same $50,000 is going to be available elsewhere versus Marvell, so if you’re not from here or have some kind of interest for being here, you’re really not going to come here in a rural area like this because we have too many disadvantages in this community,” he said. “We don’t have the social events for people to do after work, we don’t have adequate housing, so it’s going to be an uphill battle for whoever comes here.”
A national teacher shortage is another barrier that English said could be compounded by the fact some Marvell-Elaine teachers already applied for jobs elsewhere because they thought their district was destined for closure.
Friendship is hosting a job fair in Pine Bluff on Saturday for those interested in working at their Arkansas schools.
Besides needing outside help, English said there must be community support. Local residents can help with efforts to improve the schools by encouraging students, attending meetings and staying informed, he said.
Questions remain as officials continue developing this new “transformation contract” process, and English said he hopes the community will be included in the conversation.
“I understand we don’t have the political part of it, of making decisions, but as a community we still want to be informed to what’s going on,” he said.
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