No. 3: Dollarway School District taken over by state among year’s top news items

Editor’s note: The takeover of the Dollarway School District by the state is the No. 3 story on The Commercial’s Top 10 list for 2012.

The June 11 decision by the Arkansas State Board of Education to place the Dollarway School District under state control was the culmination of circumstances that had been years in the making.

The unanimous vote of the ASBE also resulted in the firing of then-Superintendent Bettye Dunn-Wright and the removal of the seven member board of directors.

The decision was made after Dollarway High School failed to meet accreditation standards for two consecutive years.

Arkansas Department of Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell assumed the role normally served by the school board and announced the appointment June 12 of former Pine Bluff School District Superintendent Frank Anthony to the post of superintendent of the Dollarway School District.

The Dollarway District began the spring semester of the 2011-2012 school year with Dunn-Wright having just completed her first semester as superintendent.

Kimbrell and his staff attended the Jan. 10 regular monthly board meeting to brief the board and the superintendent on what would be expected of them in its use of a $1.8 million School Improvement Grant for Dollarway High School awarded in Dec. 2011 that it ultimately lost in late March.

“If there is no improvement at Dollarway High School then we will remove the funds and distribute them to schools where the funds can be used,” Kimbrell said. “The expectation is that at the end of the year we will see changes in student achievement levels.

In a March 26 letter from ADE Deputy Commissioner Tony Wood to Dunn-Wright the superintendent was informed that the school improvement grant was being removed from the school district effective March 30 for failing to follow recommendations made by ADE staff.

“In general, the district needed to be more proactive with these funds, which are so important to educating our students,” said Seth Blomeley, ADE communications director at the time. “For example, the grant called for changing the culture at the district. There needed to be more done toward that goal. [ADE Commissioner] Dr. [Tom] Kimbrell has offered to meet again with the board to offer his thoughts and to answer any questions board members might have.”

The school board met with Kimbrell in a special called meeting April 5 to find out why the grant was removed and to see if anything could be done to reinstate it.

“I did not make the decision to pull the grant in one day and I will not make a decision on whether to change my mind in one day either,” Kimbrell said at the meeting.

Board President George Stepps asked Kimbrell why the grant was removed in what appeared to be an abrupt manner.

“When you all were here in January at our board meeting you gave us mandates and it has only been 41 days since you were here,” Stepps said. “It seemed very abrupt for you to come back and take the grant from the district now.”

Kimbrell said that issues related to the pace of implementation of required changes at the high school had become apparent well before his January presentation to the board.

“I wouldn’t characterize it as 41 days,” Kimbrell said. “The grant was approved last summer. The expectation of grant implementation didn’t become urgent 41 days ago. It became urgent as soon as it was approved.”

Kimbrell said that his office had been stressing the urgency of making needed changes since fall 2011 to no apparent avail.

“After we performed the November monitoring, there were lots of things lacking,” Kimbrell said. “We met with Dr. Wright and expressed a need for urgency and things that needed to happen regarding the superintendent. Afterwards there was no change, even in March.”

Dunn-Wright notified the board at its May 11 regular monthly meeting that Dollarway High School remained on probationary status. The district went before the state board at its June 11 meeting to defend the district’s position.

After confirming the probationary finding for the high school was correct, the State Board was required to take one of eight possible actions. Its members voted to to remove the superintendent and the board and for the state to take over administration of the district.