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 removed the Marvell-Elaine School District’s superintendent and limited-authority board during a special meeting Friday. The state board also directed Education Secretary Jacob Oliva to appoint a new superintendent.
The struggling Delta district has faced much uncertainty about its future due to a lawsuit that has stalled implementation of a “transformation contract” between Marvell-Elaine and a charter management organization.
“The easy thing for us to do and recommend is just close the district,” Oliva said. “The challenging thing for us to do as an agency is to fight for what’s right in this community and eliminate failure, and that’s what we’re coming to you today to do.”
The state board in May authorized the pursuit of a “transformation contract” between Marvell-Elaine and the Friendship Education Foundation. Under the LEARNS Act, 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 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.
A lawsuit challenging the LEARNS Act’s emergency clause resulted in a temporary restraining order that paused implementation of the law for three weeks. The Arkansas Supreme Court lifted the restraining order in mid-June. An emergency clause allows a law to go into effect immediately, instead of 91 days after the end of a legislative session.
A Pulaski County circuit judge last week struck down the law’s emergency clause, which means the law won’t go into effect until Aug. 1. Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin is appealing the decision.
The legal proceedings have resulted in “playing red light, green light” with officials going back and forth on who’s going to run the school, Oliva said. Friday’s state board action gives the state authority to move forward with school year preparations, including setting an academic calendar, hiring staff and buying textbooks, he said.
“This is a very difficult situation,” Deputy Commissioner Stacy Smith said. “Getting ready and set up for school to start in a month is a huge task … we’ll do what we have to do. There are kids that need to come to school.”
Smith said more than 190 students have re-enrolled with the district, which had an enrollment of 306 last year, according to the Arkansas Department of Education.
Oliva said the state plans to continue pursuing a contract with Friendship after Aug. 1. Smith said the charter management organization has expressed interest in continuing that partnership and will host a community event this weekend.
Marvell-Elaine Superintendent Katina Ray — while saying she would like to remain in the district — asked the board to do what was best for the kids.
“I’ve done everything as a superintendent that I could do, and I want to say that publicly, to try to make this work, but it’s been very difficult,” Ray said. “That’s why I called, I called and asked for help. I just say to you, put these children first and do the right thing.”
When board Chair Sarah Moore asked about a plan for communicating with district families, Smith said there will be “a full communication piece moving forward.”
Friday’s action by the board was not unprecedented. Of the four other districts currently under state control, Earle, Lee County and Pine Bluff also had their boards of directors and superintendents removed. Helena-West Helena had their superintendent removed and their board became a limited-authority board.
State authority is not meant to be permanent, and last month the state education board approved the gradual release of the Earle School District from state authority.
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