The Pine Bluff School Board heard a number of people come to the defense of interim Superintendent Linda Watson and her record during an open forum hosted by the board at the Pine Bluff High School Little Theater Thursday night.
The meeting was held to give the public the opportunity to provide input into what the district can do to improve and move forward in several areas.
“Our purpose tonight is to listen and gather information from the community on the direction of the district and ways to improve,” said board President Piccola Washington.
While any relevant topic could be addressed, the predominant theme was the board’s December decision to begin a formal search process for a permanent superintendent and whether it was viewed as appropriate.
“I am asking for Dr. Watson to be given a contract,” said district parent Kymara Seals. “She is qualified and willing to serve. We need stability in the district at this time and I believe that keeping our superintendent provides stability and moves us in the right direction.”
Support for Watson extended to district personnel.
“I understand that at times the district needs change but as the director of business and finance for the district I can tell you that we need stability right now,” business and finance director Pam Winkler said. “If we had consistent leadership we would be in much better shape. With constant change we waste a lot of money. New administrations have their own ideas and there is always an adjustment period. The Arkansas Department of Education is looking at us very hard right now so we need to make wise choices.”
Deputy superintendent Rudolph Howard agreed with the need for continued leadership.
“The Pine Bluff district is sick as are many other districts across the country,” Howard said. “The current administration has assessed the situation and has heard the concerns and let me assure you that it is working to fix the problems that exist. But to do that the administration that is in place needs time. A sick patient needs the right physician to restore the patient’s health and the district is in good hands right now.”
Assistant superintendent Suzette Anderson said the district is going in the right direction.
“The state wants stability and we need to continue with our current setup,” she said.
Rev. James Murry said the board needs to give Watson a chance to do her job.
“Has the board as a whole decided that it needs to find a new superintendent?” Murry asked. “The board is too new and hasn’t worked with the interim superintendent long enough to be able to determine if a new superintendent should be found. The district is in need of leadership but you don’t need to look for leadership if you’ve already got it.”
Rev. Henry “Hank” Wilkins IV, husband of board member Phyllis A. Wilkins, defended the board’s actions.
“This is not about Dr. Watson but instead it is about getting the best possible person in place to lead the education of our children,” Wilkins said. “What I want for our children is the best possible leadership.”
Board vice president Ken Dickson asked for patience and trust from the audience.
“You have a new board that came in on the tail end of all of this,” Dickson said. “It probably looks like we are where we were before but we are not. Let me assure you that we are moving forward.”
Board secretary Leon Jones Sr. also urged the audience to give the board the benefit of the doubt.
“We are a new board and so we are evaluating all of the options available for the district,” Jones said. “We want to get our questions answered before we move forward.”
PBHS science teacher Mattie Glover had personnel concerns.
“I have been teaching science here since 1996 and in the past three years the district has become administratively top heavy,” Glover said. “At the same time we have been losing personnel here in the trenches. When I arrived in 1996 there were five librarians here but now there are only two and they can’t keep up with everything that needs to be done.”
Classified Personnel Policy Committee representative Jewelette Courtney had concerns about chronically low salaries.
“We have not had an increase in our salary; I’ve been here for seven years and had only one raise,” Courtney said. “We have people who have worked for the district for 10, 15 and 25 years who are still only making minimum wage or barely above.”
“What have you done about raising teacher salaries to increase morale?” asked another audience member.
Board member Harold Jackson addressed raises.
“With the district continuing to lose students we are going to have to consolidate our campuses,” Jackson said. “Once this is done, hopefully that will free up some money for raises but right now the money for raises is just not there.”
Dickson spoke of the need to sell the benefits of the school district to prospective students and their parents.
“The money for the district comes from the number of students that you have so we need to promote the district on things like Facebook and Twitter,” Dickson said. “More students means more money and with more money teachers can be paid more.”