Thursday, January 3, 2013

Pulling out all the stops to save a rural school (Part XI): Hitting enrollment threshold but experiencing "fiscal distress"

I've written a lot about the Deer-Mt. Judea School District in Newton County, Arkansas, over the past few years--in particular about the school's falling enrollment and effort to avoid consolidation.  You can read more here, here, here, and here.

This fall and winter have brought both good news and bad news for the school district.  First, the good news:  the district hit an enrollment in excess of 375.  Because the enrollment threshold that mandates consolidation is 350, the school district appears to be in the clear for now.  I find it frustrating that stories reporting on the matter do not what factors have led to the enrollment increasing, well, so precipitously, especially following several years of decline.  The U.S. Census Bureau does indicate that the county's population fell, though less than 1%, between 2010 and 2011.

The bad news was reported in the Dec. 26, 2012 issue of the Newton County Times under the headline, "Fiscal distress indicated at Deer/Mt. Judea."  The troubled school district was notified by the Arkansas Department of Education that the district "has experienced two or more indicators of fiscal distress in one school year."  The indicators are reportedly at a "'nonmaterial level' but without intervention could place the district in fiscal distress."  The two indicators are:
  • a declining balance determined to jeopardize the fiscal integrity of your school district.  
  • any other fiscal condition of a school district deemed to have a detrimental negative impact on the continuation of educational services by that school district.
According to Deer/Mt. Judea Board President Sharon Pierce, the biggest challenge facing the district is declining enrollment, and the fiscal distress indicators are linked to it.  The District is already under Arkansas Department of Education supervision because of its recent enrollment travails, and the Deer-Mt. Judea District will now also be under its supervision as the District works to develop a plan to correct these fiscal indicators.  

In other news, the District has hired an instructional facilitator to help Mt. Judea teachers equip their students to earn higher achievement scores.  The consultant, Dan Raines, will work part time be paid $35,000 in funds secured through an Arkansas Dept. of Education grant.  Raines has 40 years of teaching experience, mostly in Russellville, in neighboring Pope County. Raines retired more than six years ago and lives principally in Russellville, but has a vacation residence in the Low Gap area of Newton County.

Mt. Judea has for three years been on the Arkansas Dept. of Education's list of schools needing improvement based on criteria set for Title 1 participating schools by the USDE.  These "focus schools" were identified "by achievement gaps between the highest-achieving subgroup or subgroups and the lowest-achieving subgroup or subgroups or, at the high school level, the largest within-school gaps in the graduation rate; a subgroup or subgroups with low achievement or, at the high school level, a low graduation rate, or a graduation rate less than 60% over a number of years that were not identified as priority schools."

The Mt. Judea school will undergo a required scholastic audit Jan. 13-18.  The audit team will analyze all areas of underperformance and make recommendations for an improvement plan to be submitted to the Ark. Dept of Education.

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