Monday, December 12, 2011

Pulling out all the stops to save a rural school (Part V): Economies of scale or empire building?

This post follows up on a prior one regarding the skirmish between the Jasper School District and the Deer-Mt. Judea School District. The skirmish--if you could call it that--is about which should district should include the school at Oark, which until a massive round of school consolidation in Arkansas in 2004 was its own district. Oark is a tiny school with about 150 students K-12 in remote northwest Johnson County. The earlier post described the school and its situation in more detail. That post reported that a number of Oark patrons are seeking to leave the Jasper District and to have their campus join the Deer-Mt. Judea District. Among other things, these Oark residents have called for an "independent financial audit of the Jasper School District's expenditures related to the territory of the former Oark School."

So, as I wrote in my earlier post, Deer-Mt. Judea needs Oark in order to survive, but the Jasper District is unwilling to let go of the isolated school. Why? Is it as simple as empire building on the part of the Jasper District? Is it down to the Jasper school's longtime rivalry with Deer and Mt. Judea--the same reasons those schools didn't want to join a Jasper District back in 2004?

The reasons are not self-evident, but we can get a sense of some of them in comments that several members of the Jasper Board of Education have articulated recently in the local press. Board of Education member Todd Scarborough doesn't reveal much in his comments. He said only, "We've heard from these people in the past and it seemed to me everyone there voted to stay [in the Jasper District]. I certainly think we should talk to them, but I don't know what difference it would make, at least to me."

Several of the other Board members' comments at the Nov. 14 meeting focused on the request for a financial audit, which would apparently be aimed at seeing how much money the Oark campus garners for the District. Rex Van Buren, who is the Oark campus's member on the Board of Education, said he was "opposed to separating money or anything else by campus" and asserted that the board has "done a good job of addressing needs where they are." Board Member Randy Treat asked the Superintendent to be sure that the names on the petition are Oark residents, not Deer-Mt. Judea residents. In a similar vein, Treat suggested that "somebody from Deer-Mt. Judea [District] wants to know how much money is being brought in. Not the people of Oark."

An article in the Johnson County newspaper, The Graphic, provides more extensive quotes from Van Buren on the matter:
I am completely opposed to the Oark campus leaving the Jasper School District and joining Deer. There is not benefit for Oark going to Deer. We have been in the Jasper School District awhile now, and I know we have gone through growing pains, but I don't think that's something we want to have to go through all over again.
Van Buren went on to comment for that story that the Jasper District offers many benefits to Oark patrons, including a recently passed 0.9 mill property tax increase that is paying for new classrooms in Oark, classrooms he suggest come with a $1 million price tag. He noted that all of the Jasper District campuses are getting improvements thanks to the tax increase. Kingston will get a new cafeteria, and Jasper will get new electrical systems.

At the November meeting, District Superintendent Kerry Saylors opined thought the Board should talk to the petitioners, even if only a few of them prove to be patrons of the Oark school. I note that Saylors, who has been superintendent of the Jasper District for several years now, has taken the District in a direction different to his predecessors. It is a direction that suggests taking good advantage of economies of scale--or empire building--depending on your perspective. He has, for example, brought in two assistant superintendents, a layer of management previously absent. These assistant superintendents oversee "curriculum, instruction and accountability" and "federal programs and professional development," respectively. It would probably be much harder to justify these if the District lost Oark and was left with only two campuses. It would be easier to justify these positions if the Jasper District winds up absorbing Deer-Mt. Judea.

In my next post on this topic, I will discuss what it is about Arkansas's school funding scheme that makes Oark so attractive to both the Deer-Mt. Judea and Jasper Districts.

2 comments:

Settlement Funding said...

It's upsetting to see schools being treated almost as commodities these days, but I guess that's just a sign of the times.

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