PINE BLUFF, Ark. (KTHV) - As change comes quickly to public schools in Pine Bluff, parents and students told the heads of the three districts Monday evening that they want improvement.
The superintendents of the Dollarway, Pine Bluff and Watson Chapel school districts were guests at a town hall meeting hosted by Mayor Shirley Washington.
Dr. Barbara Warren, Superintendent of the Dollarway School District, said they are working together because the success of one depends on the success of the others.
“In one of our sister districts, though, if there’s some major challenge,” she said. “Then we’re going to have high mobility. We’ll have children seeking to be in one place and trying to move here until they get exactly what it is that they’re looking for.”
Dollarway was placed under state control in 2015 because of academic struggles, while Pine Bluff was taken over earlier this month because of financial distress. Arkansas Department of Education leaders expressed worry that Pine Bluff would not have enough cash to fund operations through the end of the school year.
“When you have a decrease in enrollment, then you always have to make sure that your budget keeps up with that,” said Dr. Jeremy Owoh, who was installed as PBSD’s new superintendent after the state takeover. "And that you don’t end up in situations like we’re currently sitting in now, as fiscal distress.”
In explaining the severity and impact of PBSD’s money troubles, Washington mentioned that many classrooms go without textbooks during the entire year. Taniya Riles, a student at Pine Bluff High School, said that was true.
“Sometimes, when the teachers tell you something or try to teach you something you don’t understand, sometimes you could go to a book, but we can’t do that,” she said. “So we don’t feel we understand the lesson.”
Each of the superintendents mentioned that declining enrollment was the cause of financial difficulties within their districts. They said charter schools were one factor, as was the city’s reduced population. Warren said enrollment at Dollarway had dropped from a peak of 1,600 students to approximately 1,000 this year. Dr. Jerry Guess, Watson Chapel’s superintendent, said enrollment had dropped from as much as 4,000 to 2,480 this year.
One former teacher told the superintendents that facility improvements would go a long way toward reviving interest in attending public schools.
“Our students deserve to go to school,” she said, “in a place that is safe, that is conducive to learning, that it puts into environment where I want to go to school every day, and I’m proud to say that this is my school.”
Guess also mentioned that 20 percent of Watson Chapel’s staff turned over this year. Warren claimed that instability--whether from students moving in and out of the area, difficult home lives for students, or teacher retention--is the greatest threat to each of the three districts. She told the audience that publicizing more of the positive aspect of her school district would inspire more confidence from the community and convince people to stay. Guess agreed.
“If we make that education our priority and we support those teachers,” he said. “I believe that the community will respond.”
“What I’ve shared with the department,” Owoh said. "As well as with our staff members, that not only is it important that we become financially stable, we cannot forget the most important thing is to make sure that we’re academically sound and stable, as well.”
While promising to support teachers, Guess, who was hired in May, said layoffs would be necessary in the near future. He said that Watson Chapel is not in as dire of financial shape as Pine Bluff, but that it is on the verge of being in distress. He said the size of the staff had not been reduced at the same rate as student enrollment.
Owoh hinted that layoffs or pay cuts would be likely in PBSD. He said he has already started a human resources audit to determine if employees were earning a salary commensurate with their job description.
Discussions were held this summer about the idea of merging the three districts, but that was not brought up Monday.