Anthony pleased with Dollarway’s progress

Frank Anthony, a veteran of the educational trenches, smiled Friday afternoon when asked if he could see the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel within the Dollarway School District.

“I’ll have your answer in writing about April 15,” replied Anthony, who was named Dollarway superintendent June 12 by state Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell, the day after the state took control of the district, removing the school board and superintendent.

“I am reasonably optimistic about the district,” he said after listing positive and negative issues during a one-hour interview.

Anthony, 66, who was called out of retirement after serving as superintendent of the Pine Bluff School District for more than 12 years, said he selected April 15 simply because an evaluation three-fourths of the 2011-12 school year is needed for a fair evaluation of personnel, the physical plant, finances and academics.

He acknowledged the work on finances is ongoing, noting the district has had three treasurers in less than two years and three superintendents in four years.

Accounts payable were as much as a year behind, Anthony said, adding that he began receiving calls from vendors and suppliers upon taking office.

“We found boxes of old invoices,” he said. “Hopefully, we are clearing up the last batch.”

The district faces a financial shortfall of $500,000 for the 2012-13 school year because of shrinking enrollment, he explained. Between the end of the last school year and the start of the current school year, 140 few students were enrolled.

“Some went to private schools, others to charter schools and some simply moved from the district to other districts,” he explained, noting that one-third of the Dollarway student population has evaporated in recent years, falling to 1,310 in August.

To compound the problem, the state Board of Education recently “authorized a charter school just down the street on Blake,” Anthony said without a smile.

The district’s well-advertised problems have made it “very, very difficult to recruit and retain good teachers,” he added, noting a few key positions were open up until the start of the school year. He is still looking for a high school counselor, having called one out of retirement for several months.

Falling enrollment likely means he will recommend a reduction in force program in January or February, noting contracts for the 2012-13 school year are due by May 31.

The district’s physical plant includes two elementary schools in Pine Bluff, one at Altheimer, and a middle and senior high school. Bus barns are operational at both Pine Bluff and Altheimer.

The elementary school facilities here and the middle school are in good physical shape and well maintained, but the Altheimer and high school facilities are lacking in a number of areas.

Under the state’s new accountability evaluation reports released a month ago, Dollarway schools showed progress:

Achieving: James Matthews Elementary School, Townsend Park Elementary School;

Needs Improvement Priority — Met Year 1 Exit Criteria: Robert F. Morehead Middle School; and

Needs Improvement Priority: Dollarway High School and Altheimer-Martin Elementary School.

Two academic consulting firms are working with the Dollarway staff and faculty, Anthony said, and the Benchmark exams in the spring will offer real proof of academic gains.

“I can tell you we are gaining on things, but we are not out of the woods,” Anthony concluded. “My goal for this district is a lean, efficient operation for the future.”