Since the Twin Rivers School District's consolidation in 2004, the two small schools in both Williford and Ravenden Springs have had more than their share of problems. Many place blame on the state for the forced consolidation and say that prior to the consolidation between Williford and Oak Ridge Central, the Williford school district had plenty of money. Others said that in consolidating Williford, the school district took on the debt of Oak Ridge Central and say things have gone downhill since. Others blame parents and teachers for the continued bad talk and placing blame on Oak Ridge Central, something that has obviously carried on to students who were only in elementary school when the consolidation occurred, who now claim to know about the money issues with the district. This type of talk has carried through the years and undoubtedly is partially responsible for the opinions many students have for this most recent action. Undoubtedly, a team environment was never achieved between both schools despite having six years to accept each other and finger pointing has been rampant. Regardless of the reasons, the consolidation was required by legislation passed in 2003 that required school districts with less than 350 students to consolidate with nearby schools. The school has been on probation since the 2007-2008 school year and according to state mandates, these schools were required to meet accreditation requirements within two years, something they failed to do, forcing the state to intervene.
The problems that have plagued the district were financial, educational and administrative in nature and have been addressed on several occasions at the State Board of Education to help the district come up with feasible plans for the future. Despite the schools being on accredited probation status for over two years, the remedies to get the schools up to where they are required by the state has failed. At the Feb. 8 meeting in Little Rock, following a recommendation by the Commissioner of Education, the State Board moved to allow the Arkansas Department of Education to take over control of the school district which includes both schools comprised of 332 students, according to former Twin Rivers School Board President Charlie Tyler who said the last census was taken the day of the meeting.
This severe action marks the first time in the state that a school has been taken over by the Department of Education for accreditation violations. According to a report from the department, it says, "An administrator will be placed in the school district to work with the building level administrators for the continuance of the school year. Then the State Board will review a plan for consolidation of the Twin Rivers School District into one or more contiguous school districts by July 1. Twin Rivers has continued in accredited-probation status for two consecutive years which, under Arkansas law, triggers action on the part of the Arkansas Education Commissioner and the State Board. A team from the Arkansas Department of Education found that a number of violations were occurring at the district, including the failure to teach all 38 of the required courses."
Former Superintendent Gilliland was contacted by the Villager Journal for an interview regarding the issue but did not return phone calls regarding the actions. He e-mailed faculty and staff of Twin Rivers Feb. 4 regarding the meeting, but not members of the school board, stating, "You know there are eight items the state board can take action on. I suspect they will remove me and place an interium (interim) superintendent." Later in the e-mail he stated, "I have been informed that I will receive final report findings today by e-mail from the standards assurance. I will keep everyone apprised of the report." This e-mail came a day prior to his letter of resignation being given to Tyler, and confirmed by Commissioner Kimbrell by phone. Tyler said Gilliland thought it would help the school's chances if he were to resign, many parents and former board members agree that he knew he would be fired once he got to the meeting if he didn't resign first.
Among the actions, included were dissolving the current school board. Tyler, who also attended the meeting in Little Rock, spoke with the Villager Journal Feb. 10 regarding the closing of the two schools. Tyler said, prior to attending the Feb. 8 meeting he and board secretary Robert Wollschlager had discussed with Education Commissioner Dr. Tom Kimbrell possible remedies including placing Williford principal Paulette Crouthers as superintendent, and consolidating the campuses which would save the district over $500,000 a year. He suggested consolidating grades 7-12 on the Oak Ridge Campus, as the Williford campus is not handicapped accessible. Tyler went on to say this type of consolidation was supposed to have been achieved years prior but never quite materialized perhaps due in part to the hard feelings that had been harbored between both sides regarding the forced consolidation. Tyler said Kimbrell told him that the state might also send another superintendent to oversee Crouthers and help put her on track where she needed to be. Tyler said Kimbrell advised them to present their recommendations to the board and said he would take it into advisement and recommend to the board to help them out. Tyler said he really thought this plan was going to help the district, until the state informed them that Crouthers wasn't qualified to be superintendent.
When the meeting finally began, Tyler said, despite the fact Gilliland had already resigned, he got up and accepted fault for the problems with the school district. The meeting preceded and Tyler said he and Wollschlager began handing out their presentations, yet the board barely acknowledged their presence and many even sat their presentation aside and never opened them for review. Throughout the meeting, Tyler said the issues with compliance were discussed and a few were remedied with proper documentation having been provided. At the end of the meeting Kimbrell suggested accepting Gilliland's resignation, dissolving the school board and having the state take control of the school until the end of the 2009-2010 year at which time both schools would be closed and students would be sent to nearby schools. Tyler said it is unclear which schools would accept the students, but he assumed it would be related to where they live, but this issue remains to be addressed. The schools in the area that can accept these 332 total students includes Highland, Sloan Hendrix, Mammoth Spring, Pocahontas, Maynard and Couch, Mo. It is important to note that extensive outer repairs including roofing have been done recently at the Williford campus.
Tyler was obviously upset by the resolution and said that in October, Gilliland assured the board that everything would be fine. He said, "As a board, we did not even know Williford was on probation." He said Gilliland, "Lied to us, misled us, and did not keep us informed. You are supposed to trust your superintendent." He went on to say although there were problems; the majority of them were on the Oak Ridge campus and it was his understanding these issues were not to be addressed until next year. Many would agree that since the 2004-2005 forced administrative consolidation, both schools have all but operated independently, each not wanting to be associated with the other for personal reasons. Tyler said, "They have no idea what they have done (in taking over the schools)." Many of the family's heart and soul were within their school system, Tyler said. He even attended Oak Ridge Central when he was in school. He went on to say the only thing Gilliland has lost is a paycheck while teachers, faculty, administration, students and families at both schools have lost so much more.
According to the Board of Education, Commissioner Dr. Tom Kimbrell and senior staffmet with Twin Rivers School District staff and patrons at 6 p.m. Monday, Feb. 15, in the gym of the Williford campus. At the meeting, Kimbrell confirmed the schools will be closing at the ene of the school year. More information including an in depth article about the meeting will be in next weeks edition.