2nd attempt to close Gillett school fails; Dermott taken off fiscal distress list


LITTLE ROCK — Gillett Elementary School will remain open and the Dermott School District was removed from fiscal-distress status.

The decisions regarding two districts in Southeast Arkansas were among several made Monday by the state Board of Education.

The board agreed to reconsider an October decision denying the DeWitt School District permission to close Gillett Elementary, but motions to reverse and affirm its previous decision failed.

Gillett Elementary is the only one still open in Gillett after schools there merged with the DeWitt district years ago.

DeWitt School Superintendent Gary Wayman told the board Monday he is concerned about going into fiscal distress and said the district could save $241,000 a year by closing the Gillett school, which has 76 students in kindergarten through fifth grade. He also said the district would be better able to upgrade its technology in one elementary school than in two.

“We feel like we can best give them the best chance for a better education, better opportunities technology-wise, with it all being in one building,” he said.

Gillett Mayor Jared Holzhauer asked the board to let its previous decision stand.

“GES is able to offer the kind of attention that cannot be had by most schools in our state,” Holzhauer said. “This type of small class size and excellent student-teacher ratio is something that most states are actually trying to return to.”

After motions to grant the request and to deny it both failed to get enough votes to pass, state Department of Education attorney Jeremy Lasiter said the lack of a decision either way means that “the school remains open.”

Wayman spoke to reporters later.

“I would like to see where they’re going to find another $241,000 to give me, because if our district in a couple of years ends up in fiscal distress then they’re going to have to address that too,” he said.

Meanwhile, the board voted to remove from fiscal-distress status the Dermott district, which had received that classification because of declining fund balances. Superintendent Kelvin Gragg said the district has eliminated several positions, including going from three principals to one, and has done away with its football program.

Also Monday, the board voted to place the Mineral Springs School district in fiscal-distress status because of declining fund balances. The district is projected to end the current school year $131,616 in the red. The district did not contest the classification.

State Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell noted that former DeQueen Superintendent Bill Blackwood has come out of retirement to serve as interim superintendent for Mineral Springs while the district works to turn around its finances.

An Arkansas school district has two years to get out of fiscal distress or face a range of sanctions that can include state takeover or forced annexation to another district, although the Board of Education does not have to wait two years to take action.

The board also voted to remove the North Little Rock School District from fiscal-distress status, a classification it had received because of audit problems. Superintendent Ken Kirspel said the district has hired a new chief fiscal officer, changed policies and procedures and provided additional training to employees who deal with budget matters.

The board voted to remove from fiscal-distress status the Strong-Huttig School District, which had received the classification because of declining fund balances. Superintendent Saul Lusk said the district has eliminated its boys baseball program and its boys and girls track programs, among other changes.

Also removed from fiscal-distress status was the West Side School District in Cleburne County, which had received the classification because of declining fund balances. Superintendent Ray Nassar told the board the district has reduced personnel and refinanced bonds, among other changes, and that the voters of the district have passed a tax increase of 4.9 mills.