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School's out forever 

When the last school building in Altheimer closed in 2013, resources and student records were left to rot — despite the state Education Department being in control.

click to enlarge ABANDONED: State Sen. Stephanie Flowers (D-Pine Bluff) at the old Altheimer school. - BENJAMIN HARDY
  • Benjamin Hardy
  • ABANDONED: State Sen. Stephanie Flowers (D-Pine Bluff) at the old Altheimer school.

At the edge of Altheimer (Jefferson County, pop. 923) stands a shuttered school complex, its students long since transferred to campuses in nearby Pine Bluff. The last building to close its doors was Altheimer-Martin Elementary School, in spring 2013. By that point, the school had been consolidated into the Dollarway School District in Pine Bluff, and the Dollarway superintendent at the time determined it was financially unfeasible to keep the Altheimer school open, given its dwindling enrollment. But although the building has sat vacant for three years, the door to this public property was unlocked and unsecured when a reporter visited on a recent afternoon.

Some classrooms still seem eerily intact: Desks and chairs are arrayed in small groups, cheerful wall displays are festooned with bubble letters, textbooks and other materials are stacked on shelves. In one room, three SMART boards — interactive electronic displays that cost thousands of dollars apiece when purchased new — sit in a corner. Other rooms are in worse shape, with broken windows, vandalized walls and air thick with mold. In the old library, hundreds of ruined, mildewed books carpet the floor; the glass in a massive trophy case near the gym is smashed to pieces, but dozens of awards from decades past still stand inside. Thieves have plundered the HVAC systems and torn copper from the walls. Across the street, a football field and track are overgrown with weeds.

The facility, which was originally built to be a high school, encompasses some 30,000 square feet when the attached gymnasium is included. Constructed in 1987, it was abandoned just 24 years later. The average lifespan for a school building is 50 years. And state facilities records show that major improvements were made to the building only years before it was allowed to fall into disrepair. In 2008, state facilities records show, taxpayers paid $611,000 for (among other things) a new roof, flooring repairs and upgrades to the very HVAC system that has since been ransacked. Of that amount, $120,000 came from the state; the rest would have come from local sources.

The Altheimer property clearly has lost much of its value due to neglect and theft, but it may be impossible to know just how many resources have been lost over the past three years. If an inventory was taken of the building's contents when it was closed down, it's no longer known to state or local officials. That's despite the fact that at the time of the closure, the Dollarway School District was controlled by the Arkansas Department of Education.

In June 2012, the state Board of Education directed the Education Department to take over the Dollarway district for its failure to meet accreditation standards. In the years since, the district's problems have only continued. Three superintendents have come and gone, and, in December, former superintendent Patsy Hughey was charged with fraudulently using a school district credit card during her tenure. Though the state returned Dollarway to the control of a locally elected school board in 2014, it was taken over again by the state in 2015 for low student achievement — the district had been in "academic distress" for five straight years, meaning fewer than half of students met a benchmark on standardized tests. In April, the state Board of Education said the district was also in "fiscal distress," after an audit uncovered a long list of financial irregularities.

Somewhere in the shuffle, the Altheimer school building seems to have been thoroughly forgotten.

State Sen. Stephanie Flowers (D-Pine Bluff) is pushing local and state education officials to take action on the Altheimer school building. Flowers said she first became aware of the situation when approached by the town's mayor, Zola Hudson. In May, Flowers and state Education Commissioner Johnny Key toured the facility.

click to enlarge INSIDE THE SCHOOL - BENJAMIN HARDY
  • Benjamin Hardy
  • INSIDE THE SCHOOL

"It was unreal. It was like a movie," Flowers said. "It looked like someone pulled a fire alarm and everyone left the building and nobody ever went back in."

In addition to brand-new books and other resources (Flowers said she found a box of seemingly unused microscopes in the science lab) the senator and the commissioner found boxes of old student records. Flowers pointed to a state law that requires a school district to "obtain and retain all student and historical records and documents" after a consolidation has occurred. Student transcripts, graduation records and sports trophies are among the specific items required under the statute.

Flowers, who is an attorney, said the disregard for the records and awards is not just an affront to the law, but also to those who graduated from the old high school. "To see the trophies strewn about everywhere — that was really hurtful," she said.

Commissioner Key said he was similarly appalled by the condition of the building. Key was appointed to head the Education Department in July 2015, so he was not yet commissioner when the Dollarway district was first taken over by the state in 2012 nor when the Altheimer school was closed in 2013.

"It's heartbreaking, and it's frustrating," Key said, confirming that he and Flowers found boxes of textbooks, equipment and "student records [going] back to the mid-1960s that were unsecured and left open for anyone to find" on their May visit. Key said that Education Department staff had not been aware of the building's plight: "I don't know if anyone was previously, but no one here right now was aware of that situation." The department is now considering a change to its standard operating procedures regarding facilities in districts under state takeover, he said.

The current Dollarway superintendent, Barbara Warren, was appointed to lead the troubled district by the state board after the most recent state takeover last December. (She was formerly the director of the Arkansas River Education Service Cooperative.) Although she toured the building in December soon after meeting with Mayor Hudson, Warren said she didn't realize at that time the old school contained all that it did.

Since being told about the derelict student records, Warren said, "We've gotten [them] and brought them to a place that's safe in the district." (When this reporter visited the facility, no student records were immediately visible, although old paperwork was strewn about rooms that appeared to be administrative offices.)

Warren said taking stock of the books, furniture and other resources remaining in the building is a work in progress. "For sure, anything that is useable we want to be good stewards and get whatever in the hands of teachers and children, to be used," she said.

Warren said she student-taught in the building when it was a high school, adding, "I'm affiliated with Altheimer on a personal level. ... My dad pastored there for 20-plus years. That community means a lot to me."

Commissioner Key said Warren "has been absolutely fabulous" in addressing Dollarway's myriad difficulties.

"In a situation like Dollarway, we went in and there were so many problems that needed to be addressed," he said. "It's like medical triage. What do we do first? The fiscal concerns were very real, the academic concerns were very real — those were kind of the top-tier things. There were teacher contract issues ... [and] salary schedules had not been completed properly in years past. Obviously, when we found out about the Altheimer facility, that went on the list."

Hudson, who was elected mayor of Altheimer in 2014, said the city hopes to take ownership of the old school if the necessary repairs are done first. The gym and track could be used as a recreation facility for both youth and adults, she said. "Many people here have health problems, obesity ... They should have some place to walk inside." Hudson also has dreams of the building becoming a broader community center. "It could be used as an event space, for weddings. People could hopefully start businesses there. ... The Jefferson County Sheriff Department could put a substation in there."

Like others, Hudson is frustrated with the neglect of the property. "If you don't do something with a property, it's going to go down," she said. "When [the Dollarway School District] left the building, everything was in good condition." She also recognizes, though, that "[Superintendent Warren] is new, and I'm new, so there are a lot of things that happened prior to us being appointed and elected."

Warren said she'd "love to see the city have that building, if that is feasible," but cautioned that "there are legal ramifications when you talk about donating" real estate. "Naturally, you wouldn't want to hand over something in bad condition," she added.

But who will pay to repair the damage that's been done by three years of abandonment? Dollarway is in fiscal distress and can't afford to do renovations. It's not even clear what the insurance status of the building is. Warren said she is in the process of researching whether claims have been made regarding damage and theft.

Key said the state is "committed to helping Ms. Warren and the mayor and Sen. Flowers ... find what resources might be available," including discretionary funds from the governor's office or an inmate work crew from the Arkansas Department of Correction to maintain the grounds. One possibility, he said, is helping the town secure a rural development grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Education Department itself does not have a program for funding such repairs, Key said. He said there's no "clear legal obligation" for the department to make sure a school district under state control is maintaining school facilities that have been shut down.

The state provides some support for public school facilities through the Arkansas Division of Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation, an entity that's distinct from the Education Department. However, the director of the facilities division, Brad Montgomery, said it has no authority to monitor abandoned school buildings.

"When that building ceases being used as an academic facility, we have very little involvement in it," he said. "If we're asked to assess, we can send a team down to do a walk-through. ... There are some things that we can suggest to a district, but we have no code authority or inspection authority for an inactive facility that's fallen into disrepair."

It's unclear whether other abandoned facilities throughout the state might be similarly situated. Montgomery provided a list of vacant school buildings known to the facilities division: In 2015, a survey of districts showed there were at least 239 vacant buildings in 41 districts (although 96 districts did not respond to the question). But Montgomery, who was maintenance director at the Pulaski County Special School District before joining the state facilities division, said it's unusual for a school district to abandon a facility without taking stock of what can be repurposed.

"That's what a maintenance director lives for — producing money where there is none," he said. "Most directors are not going to sit there and let a building full of furnaces and air conditioners and other appliances get pilfered when there's a need for them at another building."

Flowers said that's no excuse for what happened in Altheimer. "I don't know if you have the same situation in other districts," she said. "You probably do. But what you don't have is a district in takeover — that's being run by the state — in a condition like this."

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