Ed Board to take over academically troubled Lee County School District


LITTLE ROCK — The state Board of Education voted Thursday to take over the academically distressed Lee County School District.

The board also voted to remove the Western Yell County School District from fiscal distress, allow the closing of Cotton Plant Elementary School and allow the Ouachita School District to reduce the size of its school board.

In a 5-2 vote with one member abstaining, the board approved a motion to remove the Lee County district’s school board and place the district under the supervision of the state Department of Education.

The state board did not remove Superintendent Willie Murdock, although Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell said that could happen in the future if the board finds that a further leadership change is necessary.

Earlier in the week, a committee of Education Board members met to study the district’s problems. Board member Vicki Saviers, who chaired the committee, told the board the district is in “a crisis,” citing problems such as divisiveness between teachers and the lack of a curriculum other than textbooks.

Saviers also said the board likely will take similar action against other districts in the future and should be clear in the message it is sending.

“If you’re a leader of a district that’s low-performing, you’re accountable,” she said. “We’re watching. We want you to succeed; we’ll help you. We’ll do whatever we can. But we’re not going to stand for years and years of chronic failure.”

Also Thursday, the board voted unanimously to remove the Western Yell School District from fiscal distress. The district had received that classification for the 2012-13 school year because of declining fund balances, but Assistant Education Commissioner Mike Hernandez reported that the district had met all of the criteria for correcting its financial problems.

The board also granted a request from the Augusta School District to close Cotton Plant Elementary School. The district’s school board voted 6-1 in February to close the isolated school, but because the vote was not unanimous, approval from the state Board of Education was needed.

The Augusta and Cotton Plant school districts were consolidated in 2004.

Augusta Superintendent Ray Nassar told the board that Cotton Plant Elementary School now has only 46 students and said it costs the district about $484,000 a year to keep it open. Because of retirements and resignations in the district, no employees would lose their jobs if the school closed, he said.

Nassar also said the district is in danger of going into fiscal distress. A district in fiscal distress has five years to correct its financial problems or face mandatory consolidation or annexation.

“If we don’t make some changes, all of our students will lose their school,” he said.

Cotton Plant City Council member Jesse Jones asked the board not to close the school, which he said is the highest performing school in the district.

The board voted 6-1 to grant the district’s request.

In other business, the board granted a request from the Ouachita School District to reduce its school board from seven members to five. Superintendent Ronnie Kissire said the district has about 500 students and has three members who are ready to retire.

“It’s a hardship to get board members to even run in a community this size,” he said.

The board granted the request in a voice vote with no “no” votes heard.