Two school districts taken over by state
Two Arkansas school districts were stripped of their leadership and taken under state control on Monday.
The Helena-West School District and the Pulaski County Special School District were both considered to be in deep financial trouble and the measure was taken to help get the two districts under better financial control.
Last year, the ADE identified Helena-West Helena as being in fiscal distress because of declining fund balances and several findings in an audit by the Division of Legislative Audit, which identified a lack of financial controls, among other things.
The take-over action was taken to immediately move toward stabilizing the finances and management of the troubled district in Phillips County in preparation for students returning for the 2011-2012 school year, according to a press release from the Arkansas Department of Education.
“It is not a move we have made lightly,” Arkansas Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell said. “We have worked with officials of the Helena-West Helena School District, but there has been a lack of improvement. Our primary concern is the education of the students in this community. For the good of the students and the staff, state action had to be taken now.”
Suzann McCommon, director of the Great Rivers Education Service Cooperative in Helena-West Helena, will serve as chief executive officer of the district, reporting directly to Kimbrell. Ulicious Reed, a former superintendent of the Marvell district, will serve with McCommon as the district’s chief operations officer.
McCommon said that she is firmly committed to engaging the entire community in a comprehensive school turnaround effort, according to the release. She will share a schedule for upcoming public meeting dates as well as further details about district priorities for the upcoming school year. Those details are expected sometime this summer.
In regards to what happened in Pulaski County, a series of investigative reports by the Division of Legislative Audit, starting in April 2010, found numerous irregularities—including the failing of the district’s leadership and board to follow its own policies, according to the release.
In June, 2010, the ADE sent a letter to the district identifying the audit findings as “extremely serious” and noting that the district faced possible placement on fiscal distress. Since then, the ADE has worked continuously with the district to resolve the problems. But improvement was lacking, which necessitated the decision.
The district needs to set the tone from the top,” Kimbrell said. “There needs to be change in the environment at the district and that starts with school leadership. The district has exhibited a lack of basic financial accountability. To create an atmosphere for children to be successful academically, a change in administration had to be made.”
Former Pulaski Superintendent Bobby Lester has agreed to lead the district during a short period until a permanent district leader is hired. He will answer directly to Kimbrell. Lester is well-respected throughout Arkansas education circles and has said he’s dedicated to helping restore accountability and confidence in the district. Lester retired from the PCSSD in 1999 after 34 years at the district, including 15 as superintendent.
In addition, Phyllis Stewart, ADE’s chief of staff and liaison to the State Board, will assist Lester during the transition. She is a former executive assistant to Lester at the PCSSD.
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