Pulaski County Special, Helena-West Helena school districts to remain in state control

LITTLE ROCK — The state Board of Education voted unanimously Friday to continue state control of the financially troubled Pulaski County Special and Helena-West Helena school districts.

In a special meeting which the board members attended by phone, the board followed the recommendation of state Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell, who said both districts have issues they need to continue addressing before they are ready to be returned to local control.

Both districts are classified as fiscally distressed and are nearing the end of their third year of state control. A school district has five years to get out of fiscal distress or face mandatory consolidation or annexation to one or more nearby districts.

Kimbrell has installed superintendents in each district and appointed community advisory boards to aid them.

In discussion of the Pulaski County Special School District, Kimbrell said Friday the district is still working to address audit findings and has two new challenges to deal with: the end of annual desegregation payments from the state under a court settlement approved in January, and the expected detachment of Jacksonville and north Pulaski County from the district, which that community will vote on later this year.

“They’ve made great progress in their fiscal distress plan … but there are still needs for the state to maintain that control and to continue that community advisory board for an additional year, and that would be our recommendation,” Kimbrell said.

Superintendent Jerry Guess said after the meeting the district will lose $20 million in annual desegregation payments and expects to lose about 4,400 students and about $35 million in annual state funding because of the Jacksonville detachment.

“Both of these are happening at the same time,” he said. “We just have to adjust to the loss of that kind of student body and revenue — and I think we can do that. I think we can be more efficient after the loss of Jacksonville. But it will have to be a very carefully planned and monitored process.”

Asked if he thought the district would be ready for local control by the 2015-16 school year, Guess said, “I think we take it one year at a time.”

Regarding the Helena-West Helena district, Kimbrell said its financial problems are not as extensive as the Pulaski County district’s and said it has made good progress, but some issues remain to be resolved.

“There are still issues around the audit, there are still issues in continuing to ensure that expenditures do not exceed revenues. Their balances are in good shape, but continued governance by the state we believe is still warranted,” he said.

Also Friday, the board approved a motion by the board’s chairman, Brenda Gullett of Fayetteville, to create a committee of board members to look at chronically under-performing schools and report back to the board on its findings. The committee will begin by focusing on the two school districts currently in academic distress, Lee County and Strong-Huttig.

The board also voted to grant waivers to the Bay and Newport school districts allowing them to make up some, but not all, of their snow days this year. On March 21 the board granted similar waivers to 75 districts that missed more than 10 school days because of an unusually harsh winter.