LEARNS lawsuit “aims to protect our school district”

Invest in children’s education and “stop playing political games,” with our kids, former Marvell-Elaine board member writes

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 April 13, 2023, State Board of Education meeting at Marvell-Elaine High School. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)

My name is Laverne Sims, chair of the group Concerned Citizens of the Marvell Area. I am writing to dispel some of the rumors, misinformation and propaganda that our state leaders are spreading about our lawsuit against the state concerning the plan to sell our school district to a charter-school management company.

I was a school board member in the Marvell-Elaine School District, and I am a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

Concerned Citizens of the Marvell Area, which consists of many MESD parents, employees and residents, is working to protect our school district from the harm that would be caused by a rushed charter-school takeover. We want the state to invest in what is proven to help kids improve their education and stop playing political games with our kids and our community.

Despite what you may have heard, this lawsuit will not cause the district to be consolidated or closed. In fact, we have already obtained a court order prohibiting the State Board of Education from closing, consolidating or dividing the district. The court order also stops mass layoffs of MESD teachers and staff and gives members of the MESD community a much-needed opportunity to weigh in on the terms of this contract before it is finalized.

Arkansas judge halts, for now, implementation of the LEARNS Act

‘Why should you believe us?’

With so much misinformation surrounding this lawsuit, why should you believe us? 

Simply put, we are deeply invested in the future of MESD. We have kids and grandkids in this district. Some of us work for MESD. Many of us attended MESD schools when we were younger. We have built our lives in this community, and we understand how important MESD schools are for the health of small, rural towns like ours.

Please remember that we are your friends and neighbors. We are not out-of-town political activists. We have lived here in Marvell for a very long time and will still be here when all of this is over. The state leaders who are calling the shots from the State Capitol are the ones playing partisan games with our kids. For them, this is politics. For us, it’s real life.

‘Why did we sue?’

Why did we sue the State Board of Education over the plan for a “transformation contract” with Friendship Education Foundation?

We are deeply concerned about the terms of this contract and what it will mean for our kids. We don’t believe it will improve the education for our children, and we think it could result in the loss of our schools in a few years after this charter experiment inevitably fails. 

We also sued because we have doubts about the specific charter-school management company that was chosen. They do not have a strong track record. And we have concerns about the $650,000 cost of the contract, which will be taken out of the district budget.

Arkansas education board approves first ‘transformation contract’ under LEARNS Act

Our school is struggling because it is already under-resourced, especially considering the high needs of many of our students. We don’t need the State Board to outsource its own management and oversight responsibilities after voting last April to take over the district and dissolve our elected school board. This will reduce the resources for our kids, when we need a lot more.

This entire process has been rushed, sloppy, and secretive from the start. The Arkansas General Assembly failed to follow the Arkansas Constitution when it passed the LEARNS Act in a rush last session. Then, the State Board insisted on applying the LEARNS Act prematurely, even after lawyers warned that it wasn’t yet law.

The “transformation contract” with Friendship Education Foundation was formed behind closed doors and approved with one-day’s notice that the State Board would be holding a special meeting during the workday in Little Rock, making it very difficult for any Marvell or Elaine residents to attend. The State Board didn’t even release the terms of the contract to the public before voting on it, making it virtually impossible for us to provide input before it was approved.

Asking the courts to require the State Board to slow down and follow the law does not mean that a “transformation contract” can never occur, but it does provide people in Marvell and Elaine a much-needed opportunity to have a voice in this process. Our first priority is to make sure any future plan will benefit our students.

‘An opportunity to stand up’

Our lawsuit is also an opportunity to stand up for the valuable MESD employees who have been mistreated throughout this process. At the end of April, most MESD employees were unceremoniously fired when they received a notice of contract nonrenewal. The only reason that the district cited for their termination: the new “transformation contract” at issue in our lawsuit. These employees, many of whom have served the district for decades, would be out of a job right now had we not successfully sued to stop the layoffs. 

I believe that the people of Marvell and Elaine have the desire and the capability to lead our own schools, whether that is through the return of an elected school board or the creation of a very different type of “transformation contract” that empowers local residents and better serves our students and staff.

We need a plan that engages our community and invests in proven solutions to boost learning and help kids in poverty succeed. We need to invest in after-school and summer programs, extra help for low-income kids and retaining high-quality teachers. 

I know that MESD families want their children to thrive just as much as any other parents in Arkansas. No one cares about our students’ future as much as we do. We care enough to go to court and fight for what is right. So, before you believe the State’s propaganda about our lawsuit and view us as villains out to destroy MESD, please remember who we are and what we are trying to accomplish. 

Our lawsuit is the only reason there is now a court order prohibiting the closure or consolidation of our schools, halting the mass layoff of our teachers and staff, and pausing the creation of an expensive “transformation contract” so that the community can weigh in on its terms. These are all good things that benefit MESD, and we are proud to be fighting for them in court.

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Laverne Sims, Guest Contributor
Laverne Sims, Guest Contributor

Laverne Sims is the chair of the Concerned Citizens of the Marvell Area, a former Marvell-Elaine School District Board member and a named plaintiff in Doris Jackson et al v Arkansas Department of Education et al (60CV-23-3267) in Pulaski County Circuit Court.