Saturday, January 28, 2012

Pulling out all the stops to save a rural school (Part VII): Isolated school petitions state Board of Education

I've written a lot lately about the struggles of "isolated schools" in northwest Arkansas's Newton, Madison, and Johnson counties. The most recent posts are here, here and here.

Now some patrons of the the school at Oark, which earlier expressed its desire to leave the Jasper School District and join the Deer-Mt. Judea District, have taken their case to the Arkansas Board of Education. Jamie Willis, whose son is a second grader at Oark School, was spokesman for the group and addressed the board on January 9 in Little Rock. Jasper Superintendent Kerry Saylors responded on behalf of the Jasper School District.

Willis presented each member of the Arkansas Board of Education a book containing photos of the Oark campus and information about it. Willis cited school finances as a major concern because as of the 2011-2012 school year, seven Oark campus positions have been cut, including one elementary teacher, one coach, the construction technology teacher, the principal, the janitor, a cafeteria worker and a paraprofessional. Willis also asserted that the Oark facilities have not been kept in safe condition, and he cited concerns about a heater that doesn't work, mold growing in some rooms, cracked or broken windows, sidewalks in disrepair, and a poorly maintained water supply.

Willis said his group had tried to present the information to the Jasper Board of Education but had been denied an opportunity. (Read more about that here). He told of how members of his group had made phone calls to the Jasper Board, including its Oark representative. Finally, they hired a lawyer to represent them at the meeting before the state Board. Willis claims to have 200 signatures on a petition supporting Oak's desire to join the Deer-Mt. Judea District.

Finally, Willis argued that Oark should join Deer-Mt. Judea because "they share borders, forestlands, socioeconomic student demographics, and remote status."

Jasper Superintendent Kerry Saylors responded by calling some of what Willis said "half truths." He noted that a staff member of the Arkansas Board of Education has recently visited the Oark campus, and he asked that staff member to report to the Board what she saw. (If the staff member did so, it was not reported in the Newton County Times.) Saylors acknowledged that he has cut staff at the Oark campus because when he came into the district, Oark had two full-time principals, two full-time secretaries, and two full-time coaches--all for just 150 students. "We have made some changes in those areas" where he thought the campus was overstaffed, Saylors stated. By way of justification, he said that the $75,000 in salary that the Jasper District pays to principals is too much for a principal over only 75 students--which was the situation when Oark had two principals. Saylors also noted that a number of construction projects are underway on the Oark campus, and he insisted that none of the changes the Jasper District has made have harmed students in any way. If the Arkansas Board of Education is going to make some decision regarding this matter, the newspaper does not indicate what it is.

In other education news, the Arkansas Supreme Court is scheduled to hear in late February the case filed in late 2010 by the Deer-Mt. Judea School District by which is seeks to avoid forced consolidation. A Pulaski County Circuit Judge has already ruled against the Deer-Mt. Judea District. Read more about the District's legal efforts here and here. The District is arguing that the state is knowingly underfunding transportation and that the Deer-Mt. Judea matter is not controlled by a 2007 decision called Lake View School District, even though Deer-Mt. Judea was a party to that lawsuit.

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