New board gives a reason to hope

In the recent election, voters in the Pine Bluff School District seated a new raft of board members. Even in the face of the mad hornets’ nest that is the PBSD administrative morass, these brave souls dared ask for the privilege of fighting the good fight. We applaud them for their gumption.

Prime examples of the district’s tribulations were detailed in a pair of recent reports by the Commercial. In these stories, district officials, past and present, remind us of the looming financial crisis brought on by myriad lawsuits against the district. From this, a number of hard-learned lessons present themselves.

With specific reference to the lawsuit filed against the district by former Superintendent Jerry Payne, anyone even half watching the events of the last few years could have seen this coming. Payne got to town and immediately set a course bent on alienation of those with whom he needed to ally. The school board responded with equal capriciousness.

Were this the only grievous injury to public education wrought by the district. Over the past decade we watched as an employee was allowed to illegally syphon hundreds of thousands of dollars out of district coffers. “Asleep at the wheel” fails to capture the administrative culture that permitted such atrocities.

Luther Sutter, legal counsel for the district, succinctly summed the wage of these sins at a recent school board meeting. Sutter told the board that the district is facing multiple lawsuits — some dating back years.

“Even if we win every one, the district’s liabilities will exceed six figures with the ongoing lawsuits. The lawsuits have multiplied in the six months I have served in this capacity. They range from transportation to employment to Freedom of Information Act requests, to failure of policy. Some of these lawsuits go back five years.” Sutter said.

This revelation begs an especially deep moment of introspection. How is it that the district’s affairs have been so mismanaged as to make it amenable to multiple, concurrent lawsuits? Even taking into consideration the fact that all large public bureaucracies eventually encumber legal liabilities, the present situation is unconscionable.

Again Sutter circumscribed the dominant contours of the situation. “Many of the problems we have are a failure of policy,” he said.

At their best, schools are an incubator and attractor for communal growth. Run as Pine Bluff has been for some time, it is the opposite. It has been a beacon of negativity that washes out many of the positives that undoubtedly happen at each of the district’s campuses. Corruption and ineffectual leadership tell the outside world that students in the PBSD are largely on their own. The decades of exodus confirm it.

The new faces on the board indicate that voters are in touch with the realities that previous board members chose to evade. We think this change bodes well for the district. While nobody relishes the predicament, we’re heartened at the apparent opportunity to resolve it.

Of course change is hard, especially deep, fundamental change. If change is to be made, many sacred cows, protected fiefdoms and traditions will have to be abandoned. This will bring pain and confusion to some. Feelings will be hurt. Toes will be trod upon.

Even so, the children are worth it. Our communal future is worth it. It must be done. We hope the newly entrusted members of the school board will summon the courage to do.