For many the terrible news of the state's proposed closing of both Twin River's schools in July has came as a shock and left many with the belief that there is no option to shutting the doors on the schools, and essentially the entire community of Williford. During a recent speech, as President Obama touted the importance of rural schools and taking great measures to save them, the state shutdown Twin Rivers. Numerous parents, staff and supporters of the district have gathered and considered options for saving their school, including hiring an attorney to file an appeal on behalf of the district regarding possible civil rights violations in this unprecedented decision as well as contacting a nearby NAACP and establishing the first Native American Youth Chapter of the NAACP under the Cape Girardeau, Mo., chapter.
Things have continued to get uglier since the announcement of the closing. Rumors have circulated about the reasons for the school not being given a chance under more capable leadership than that of the former school board and superintendent. While several schools in the state have been on the same type of accredited probationary status for over two years, Twin Rivers was the only one the state chose to shut down. Julie Thompson, director of communications with the State Board of Education said that other contributing factors that set Twin Rivers apart from the other districts in similar circumstances such as Hughes, Hamburg, Hope Fordyce, Rector and Yellville-Summit were the fact that Twin-Rivers had issues in the past prior to being on academic probation and decreased enrollment. She later stated, "When the decision to shut down the school was made, they didn't compare Twin Rivers' situation with any of the other districts."
Many families would agree the decreased enrollment over the last few years was contributed to rumors and issues regarding the previous administration and was not a reflection on the school's ability to teach as members of the Board of Education implied. Johnson also said that there were no options available to the district in regard to saving the school, stating that the state now had control of the school district. The state placed a director for school improvements at the Hughes campus to help them overcome issues, an option that was never offered to patrons of the Twin Rivers School District. Johnson said the state, "didn't look at closing the Hughes District down because of their enrollment" a census with a little over a hundred more students than Twin Rivers, despite the fact that records on the State Department of Education Web site indicate that the district also continues to lose students. In fact, several of the other schools in trouble had also been in trouble in the past.
Armed with all these facts and a statement made at the meeting where Kimbrell announced the closing of the school stating there was an appeal process if patrons wanted to hire an attorney, parents, students, teachers and faculty who stand to lose their jobs have decided to give it their all and fight for the school they love.
A Facebook group called Save Twin River's School District has over 800 fans and the public is becoming more and more aware of the issue. According to Tony Lowe, a parent of two Twin Rivers students, has spearheaded the project and said a group comprised of about 150 parents, students, staff and concerned citizens from the Williford campus and a few from the Oak Ridge campus have become more and more involved in the plight of trying to save their schools. He said some of the members have met twice at the home of Dub and Janice Maxwell, local American Indians, who offered their home after they alleged acting superintendent Tom Arant would not allow them to pass out flyers or use the campus as a place for meeting.
The third meeting was a public forum, which was announced heavily in the local media and was held at the Hardy Gym on March 8. Lowe said the attendance was good but not what he expected. He said from many press articles, the public believes there are no options available to the school and that the State Board of Education would like to see patrons roll over and peacefully submit to the decision without a fight. He said that wasn't going to happen. According to Lowe, at the March 8 meeting, several patrons presented signed and notarized affidavits stating that the acting superintendent Tom Arant had told parents they were not allowed on campus and that the children were not allowed to discuss the issue. He said many told him that since all the publicity given in the radio, television and newspapers to the situation, students were being allowed to transfer, something that was advised against at the initial meeting when Commissioner Tom Kimbrell announced the plans to close the district at the end of the school year. At that meeting, Kimbrell stressed the importance of filling out the proper documentation for the legal transfer to another district. Lowe said flyers were even sent home with students regarding the easy transfer, something Arant said was decided upon during a meeting.
He said during a meeting with superintendents of the six contiguous districts that would be annexing the 300 plus students, a discussion ensued to move forward with what he called a "legal transfer" before the end of the year. He said this was so students could begin to adjust to the new school and become familiar with it prior to the 2010-2011 school year. Arant said it was for the good of the students involved and would ease the transition. He said this had no connection to publicity about families and patrons trying to save the district. He also said that there were many rumors that his coming down to take over the district was motivated by money and said he would like to set the record straight. He said he came out of retirement and took the job to help the district, stating he was making less than he was before he retired, and took the same salary as the previous superintendent.
When questioned about topics discussed at the March 8 meeting regarding not allowing parents on campus and students not being allowed to talk about the issue, Arant denied all allegations. He explained first the legal transfer procedures stating that school laws dictate that once residency is established in a district and a student transfers to another district they can always return to their home district with no paperwork. He said students were only discouraged about dwelling on the impending closing of the school and Arant said he told teachers to be supportive of them but not let it take away from the learning process. He said, "I have never instructed my staff at either campus not to talk about or discuss anything."
Arant said there was one person barred from campus, and that although he would not use names, he said one was part of the former administration. Public arrest records and confirmation from parents indicate that person is former Twin Rivers School Board president Charlie Tyler, who was arrested by Randolph County Sheriff's Department for terroristic threatening against Arant. The second person Arant said was a mother of one student who was constantly coming on campus. He said parents are always welcome but must go through the proper procedures including visiting the office and said that staff was always available to visit with parents regarding their child's education. He said in any school setting parents are not allowed to walk on campus and talk to their child. He went on to say he has never instructed any of his teachers or staff not to talk about the issue, but rather said they were discouraged about engaging in rumor.
Allegations were made at the March 8 meeting that teacher's transfers to other districts and their jobs would be jeopardized if they were to discuss the closing of the school. Arant adamantly denied this allegation.
Arant also addressed the Ozark Band of Cherokee's, a non-profit organization headed by the Maxwells, who are American Indians who urge anyone with Native American ancestry to stand up and be proud of their heritage, including those at the Twin River's District. The couple has been instrumental in assisting patrons with saving their school and ultimately in establishing the NAACP chapter to help the former district with what they call "a civil rights violation." The NAACP will offer legal resources to the group. Arant offered this statement in regard to the Native Americans, "I have a real concern with patrons being taken advantage of or for them to invest their hard earned money in things they can not afford." Because the state has taken over control of the district and froze all accounts, an attorney can not take the case on a retainer. The entire $10,000 cost is needed for the group's Little Rock attorney to take the case, one which Lowe said she stated was "very winnable."
The group Save Twin River's School District is planning upcoming fundraisers to raise the needed money to fight the state on what they all feel is an unwarranted closure of two schools and would like to garner as much public support as possible in saving not only their schools but also the small community that many believe will die with the closure. Lowe said, "Win, lose or draw we are going to fight this thing to the end."