State takes over Pulaski School District | Arkansas Blog

Monday, June 20, 2011

State takes over Pulaski School District

Posted By on Mon, Jun 20, 2011 at 2:19 PM

OUSTED: Charles Hopson
  • OUSTED: Charles Hopson
The shoe dropped.

State Education Director Tom Kimbrell has decided to remove the superintendent and board of the Pulaski County School District. The news came in as I was writing the previous item about more unsettling allegations about district managment.

Retired Superintendent Bobby Lester will be brought in to run things for the time being.

Kimbrell said the lack of basic financial accountability demanded the change. Read the full release on the jump. Gov. Mike Beebe is quoted as supporting the action, the second takeover of the day.

I still have pending my question for the state on what influence they plan to exert, if any, on the School Board's previous decision to fight an end to state desegregation aid. Lester has a solid reputation as a straight shooter. I look forward to his assessment of district operations if it is shorn abruptly of that aid, with teacher contracts in hand. He retired in 1999. You might be interested in what he had to say about the district in an interview with the Arkansas Leader a few months ago. He didn't think much, by the way, (neither did we) about what the attorney general had to say about the way the district had used state desegregation money.

BACK TO WORK: Bobby Lester
  • BACK TO WORK: Bobby Lester
The state is now running a school district with which it has an adversary position in court (practically speaking, if not technically.) Does it have the power now to drop the district's appeal of desegregation aid? Will it continue to oppose arguments that the state's actions — such as in charter school creation — are contributing to segregation in Pulaski County? It's an uncomfortable position.

Matt DeCample, spokesman for Mike Beebe, said of discussions between the governor and Kimbrell leading up to this decision: "This action is strictly about the operations of the district. It is not in any way an attempt to alter the ongoing legal actions in the deseg case." He referred questions about the state balancing a dual legal role in the desegregation litigation to Attorney General Dustin McDaniel. I've inquired.

The district had insisted it was making strides on financial accountability. Auditors didn't think so. And it has increasingly become a political sideshow. There was Board member Tim Clark's involvement in a scheme to discredit Board member Gwen Williams. The involvement of Mills High Principal Michael Nellums led to his suspension and recent abrupt resignation. The tension prompted Board member Sandra Sawyer's resignation last week. The district's relationship with the teachers union has ranged from difficult to nuclear war. Many people in Jacksonville want out of the district, which encircles Little Rock and North Little Rock. It has endured a declining enrollment as a suburban exodus has continued in Pulaski. What's good to report? I'll have to get back to you on that.

EDUCATION COMMISSIONER ACTS TO IMPROVE ADMINISTRATIVE AND FISCAL OPERATIONS OF THE PULASKI COUNTY SPECIAL SCHOOL DISTRICT


LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas Education Commissioner Dr. Tom Kimbrell today exercised his authority under state law to remove the superintendent and dissolve the board of the Pulaski County Special School District.

The action was taken to immediately move toward restoring confidence in the district’s stewardship of public funds, which has been the subject of several critical legislative reports.

"The district needs to set the tone from the top," Dr. 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."

The department made its decision regarding the district in consultation with Gov. Mike Beebe who fully supports Dr. Kimbrell in this matter.

Dr. Kimbrell and other key ADE staff arrived at the PCSSD this afternoon to inform the superintendent, Dr. Charles Hopson, of the changes in district leadership. Steps have been taken to secure school records and to ensure district operations will continue uninterrupted.

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.

In June, 2010, the ADE sent a letter to the district identifying Audit's 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 Dr. Kimbrell's decision.

Former PCSSD 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 Dr. 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.

The State Board placed the PCSSD on fiscal distress in May. Under the Omnibus Quality Education Act of 2003, the education commissioner has authority to exercise a state takeover of districts in fiscal distress that don't adequately correct their problems.

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