UPDATE Board OKs merger of two districts, removes district from fiscal distress


LITTLE ROCK — The state Board of Education on Monday approved the voluntary annexation of the Bradley School District to the Emerson-Taylor School District in southwestern Arkansas and removed the Drew Central School District in southeastern Arkansas from fiscal-distress status.

Bradley Superintendent Gammye Moore told the board the district has a student enrollment of 357 and likely would be forced to merge with another district in a few years anyway. Under Act 60 of 2003, if a public school district’s enrollment drops below 350 for two consecutive years it must be merged with another district.

The Bradley School Board has voted to support annexation, Moore said.

“We feel that with the state Board of Education’s approval of this annexation, it will guarantee the Bradley community a future of continued academic success while at the same time eliminating a high level of uncertainty and anxiety that our parents and community members have lived with since the passage of Act 60.”

Gary Hines, superintendent of the Emerson-Taylor district, said that district’s board also has voted to support annexation.

The Bradley district is in southern Lafayette County. The Emerson-Taylor district is in the southern part of neighboring Columbia County.

The Lafayette County School District opposed the request. Lafayette Superintendent Mark Keith told the board that annexation with Lafayette, in the northern part of the county, ought to be considered.

Keith acknowledged that Lafayette High School is classified as a “priority” school because of academic issues, but he said test scores are improving and predicted that the school would not be under that classification for long.

“I think we’re really starting to see good things happen in Lafayette County,” he said.

Board member Sam Ledbetter of Little Rock cast the only vote against the annexation. Ledbetter said he was concerned about the distance between the districts’ schools and said that if the campuses were to be consolidated someday, students could have extremely long bus rides to school.

The board voted to remove the Drew Central School District from fiscal-distress status after state Department of Education officials said the district has corrected the issues that led to it receiving that classification for the 2012-13 school year.

Drew Central Superintendent Mike Johnston told the board the district has eliminated some positions, eliminated a boot camp program, eliminated long-term disability benefits for employees, raised its property tax millage by 4.9 mills, refinanced a bond issue, increased lunch prices and eliminated one bus route. The district is projecting a positive fund balance at the end of the current school year of between $1.4 million and $1.5 million.

The board voted to continue fiscal-distress status for the Helena-West Helena District, which has been on that status since September 2010 and was taken over by the state in June 2011.

The board also continued fiscal-distress status for the Pulaski County Special School District, which was placed on that status in May 2011 and was taken over by the state a month later.

Both districts have made progress, but neither has resolved all of the issues that led to fiscal distress, education officials said.

The board voted to approve a request from Northwest Arkansas Classical Academy in Bentonville to move from its current location on Southwest Runway Drive to a location on Melissa Drive; a request from SIATech Little Rock to move from its current location on Scott Hamilton Drive to a location on Interstate 30; and a request from Little Rock Preparatory Academy to move from its current location on South Schiller Street to a new location on Spring Street.

Attorney Patrick Wilson and state Rep. Mark Perry D-Jacksonville, gave the board an update on efforts to detach Jacksonville’s schools from the Pulaski County Special School District and create a separate Jacksonville School District.

Under legislation by Perry that was enacted this year, the process requires collecting signatures from a number of voters in the area to be detached equal to 10 percent of the number of voters in the area who voted in the last general election. The signatures must then be submitted to the state Board of Education.

If the board rules the petition valid, it then will be required to request an attorney general’s opinion on whether the detachment would negatively impact desegregation. If the attorney general does not believe there will be a negative impact, the board will order an election on detachment at the time of the next school or general election.

Wilson and Perry said signatures are being collected now. They said they hoped to be able to present the signatures to the board at its June meeting.

“The Jacksonville people want this. They are actively working for this,” Wilson said.