Stacy Smith, deputy commissioner with the Arkansas Department of Education (seen here at an April 13, 2023, meeting), on Thursday, June 1, 2023, recommended that the Earle School District be removed from fiscal distress status but remain under state supervision for three more years. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)
The Earle School District is being released from its fiscal distress status but will remain under state control for until next May.
The Arkansas State Board of Education approved the action Thursday during a special meeting in Earle.
The board also approved a recommendation to reinstate the district’s suspended board members in a limited-authority capacity.
Earle received a fiscal distress classification in October 2017, and the state assumed authority over the district the following month. The state also suspended the local five-member board, who became an advisory committee that has continued to meet regularly, though one member has since died.
There are five districts currently under state authority — Earle, Pine Bluff, Lee County, Helena-West Helena and Marvell-Elaine. All five have experienced declining enrollment over the last decade and more than 90% of their students are African American.
Declining enrollment puts a strain on smaller schools because a loss of students means a loss of state funds, Arkansas Department of Education deputy commissioner Stacy Smith said.
Earle’s fiscal distress classification originally stemmed from records that reflected close to $2 million in improper expenditures of state and federal funds beginning in the 2015-16 school year. Additionally, the elementary school facilities had not been maintained and were dangerous for students, Smith said.
The state loaned Earle roughly $646,636 to pay back federal funds, and Smith said the district has made significant progress in repaying the loan.
In addition to fiscal distress, the district received a Level 5 Intensive Support classification in May 2019. Strides have been made academically, with student growth improving and 71% of teachers now licensed, but the district still has a ways to go, Smith said.
“This district is not out of the woods in terms of consolidation, annexation or reconstitution or some other type of action,” she said. “I cannot in good faith say to you today that I would recommend that they would be released [from state control]. They’re not there.”
Community members voiced concerns during Thursday’s meeting about challenges with teacher recruitment and reinstating the previous school board members. State officials said lifting the suspension on the board members’ powers is the quickest way to start getting back to local control.
The limited-authority board would last until next May, Smith said. Over the next year, the district can work to establish when to hold a school board election, as well as how to schedule staggered elections for the different zones.
Education Secretary Jacob Oliva said the Earle District didn’t end up in distress overnight, so getting the district to a place where the state can hand back full control to the local community won’t happen overnight either.
“We’re committed to this,” Oliva said. “The conversation of the Earle School District doesn’t stop today.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated how long the Earle School District will remain under state control.
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