The strong willed local community has proven that will not sit back and take the decision without a fight. Patrons have formed a group called 'Save Our Twin River's School District' has held various fundraisers which have enabled them to hire an attorney to represent them against the Arkansas Board of Education. aCaldwell spoke with the Villager Journal regarding the case as well as possible outcomes for the district and her reasons for accepting the case.
Background for closure
Caldwell, who represents not only the teachers, but also the district in a lawsuit filed May 12 against the ADE, said that in 2004, Act 2 required the two small schools to consolidate, as it did, along with many other smaller districts in the state. Williford and Oak Ridge Central consolidated administratively and kept both campuses open, effectively becoming Twin Rivers School District. During this time there was no closure of isolated school districts.
Caldwell further explains that two years later the act was amended, allowing the schools who were in distress to voluntarily close only if the school board were to vote on it unanimously. If there was a need for an arbitrator, the Board of Education would act only as the arbitrator to help the district come to a unanimous decision, voting only if required. The attorney said, "In this case, the schools remained open, when they dissolved the school board and removed them, under their authority to do that, the superintendant, who was appointed never came to the school district to help them (Tom Arant, acted as superintendant until the end of the year)." Caldwell spoke of a December motion made by the ADE to send someone to both campuses at the request of the former school board to help straighten out some of the problems. This was never done. Following the Christmas holiday break, the ADE brought a 10 person team to the campus, for a more comprehensive investigation. Rather than assist the district and help with compliance, as several school board members, including former board president Charlie Tyler, maintain they believed was the purpose of their visit, they instead searched extensively for more charges against the district. After the team's visit, the school district was then given a letter with information stating they had only 30 days to fix the outlined problems, Former Superintendant David Gilliland, whom many blame for the events leading up to the decision, received the letter on a Friday and the State Board met the following Monday. This gave the board no time to respond, despite the fact that Caldwell said the district had been given 30 days to make the required changes. Gilliland gave his resignation prior to the meeting with the State Board of Education then the Board dissolved the school board and took control of the district, later appointing an acting superintendant to complete the year and help with the transition and the many implications created by the impending closure.
The Public Meeting
After a trip to the Williford campus of the Twin Rivers School District, ADE Commissioner Dr. Tom Kimbrell announced at a very emotional and packed public meeting Feb. 15, that the ADE would permanently close the Twin Rivers School Districts campuses at both Williford and Oak Ridge Central at the end of the 2009-2010 school year. This was after the school had issues with accreditation and an decreasing population over the last three years. The state mandates that student enrollment must be above 350. This landmark decision was the first time in state history that the Arkansas Board of Education took steps as drastic as this to close a school. Many who attended voiced their opinion publicly that they believed the school board was responsible, as it is their duty to ensure the superintendant is doing his job, while others who addressed thc crowd said they blamed the superintendant. Regardless, it was clear that there was no accountability to the patrons, which is the main reason they pleaded with the board to allow them the opportunity to prove that under new leadership and guidance from the ADE, they could meet the criteria needed to take them off the probationary status, and forego closing the schools.
No Chance Given
Since, the decision, the group of advocates comprised of parents, teachers and other concerned parties have been willing to help in the effort to save their schools. They maintain the isolated school district, which receives state mandated funds for being an isolated school, should remain open and placed under new and capable leadership. Caldwell said Hughes School District, who had received the same letter as that of Twin Rivers regarding closure and had the exact type of offenses as Twin Rivers, but was not closed. Instead, the ADE has seemingly tried to help that district in any way possible, including putting persons in the school to help them address and correct deficiencies, an opportunity never given to Twin Rivers. Caldwell said that test scores in Twin Rivers are higher than that of Hughes and their census is less than 100 students more than Twin Rivers. The group has raised money through fundraisers hired Caldwell to represent them in their case against the ADE . Tony Lowe, a parent of two children who attend the Williford campus of Twin Rivers, ssaid this stands as testament to the strong ties the patrons of this district have and how hard they are willing to fight to save their isolated school and offer their children the same opportunities they had to go to school and live in rural Arkansas. Lowe also spoke at the May 10 meeting in Little Rock where the board voted to close the schools.
The students will be annexed into six contigious districts including Mammoth Spring, Highland, Maynard, Pocahontas, Hillcrest and Sloan Hendrix.
Teachers lose their jobs
During the teacher non-renewal hearing at Walnut Ridge, Caldwell, the group's attorney, said there was no local authority to hear the case in which the teachers had the right to ask why their contracts weren't being renewed. Despite the fact that during the Feb. 15 public meeting, Kimbrell told the crowd, "All the schools in which the Twin Rivers schools are being annexed have said they would hire teachers and staff as there were openings and the department will help them find jobs." Caldwell said that none of the teachers would be hired by the districts annexing the students.
Caldwell went on to explain that during the hearing, at the last minute, Kimbrell appointed a personal friend and attorney to the board as well as one of his employees. These were people who would ultimately be responsible for determining whether or not to renew the contracts. She said she asked each of them who their immediate supervisor was, and both replied to her that Kimbrell was their supervisor. One of the board members, Caldwell said, was a probationary employee of Kimbrell's. When asked why the teachers were not being renewed, Caldwell said one of the reasons given was because the superintendant and board had been removed.
She further explained the preceding by comparison to a similar case. She stated that although the Weiner School District was being consolidated into Harrisburg, none of the teachers were non-renewed. She said the state must provide the non-renewal letter to teachers by May 2. She said teachers who have taught over two years are automatically renewed if they do not receive these letters by the state mandated deadline. She said if they do receive a letter, they have the right to an "impartial hearing in front of the superintendant and school board." The board is required to give them a written explanation regarding reasons why they aren't being renewed. In the Twin Rivers instance, the board was comprised of some of the same people who were in charge of closing their school district.
Caldwell explained the reasons for not renewing the teacher's contracts as given by Kimbrell's appointed board to include, "dissolval." She said the second reason was, "It was likely, that the State Board of Education would annex Twin Rivers into another receiving district." Caldwell said she introduced a letter written April 9, asking why Kimbrell felt it would be "likely", stating that the letter he received only stated that they would be taking up the issue at the meeting, it wasn't something that had been voted upon. She said, regarding the letter for which Kimbrell used as a basis for one of the reasons for not renewing the contracts, "It did not say it was likely (that they would be annexed), it is speculative, it is not just and reasonable." This is something she said the Board of Education has to prove. When Caldwell asked acting superintendant Tom Arant where his information came from, in regard to the statement used as basis for non-renewing contracts, Caldwell said he told her, most of it came from the newspaper. She went on to explain if this situation had been the school annexing with one district, rather than six, that there is a law stating that a receiving district also receives the assets of the district in which it is annexing; in this case the schools that were annexing would also receive the teacher contracts.
Since it is an unprecedented case, one might question whether or not the same standards apply when a district is split and annexed into more than one district. She said during the hearing she continued to dispute the fact that the only official notice Kimbrell had received in regard to non-renewing the teacher contracts for the reasons stated said, "They were going to consider it, they didn't say it was probable or likely." She said she then questioned why their termination was being recommended if they (Board) had tried to negotiate with the annexing school districts, at which time, she said, Arant became visibly angry.
Caldwell said she later questioned Arant about the staff or teachers with which they felt there were issues. She asked him if they had advertised for a qualified teacher to fill any positions in which there were questionable teachers. She said if the situation were so devastingly bad that it warranted taking over the district, one would have to wonder why Arant did not attempt to remedy the problem. She said no advertisements had been placed to hire teachers.
The board then wanted to hear from the teachers, who had no defense, or way to convince the appointed board to renew their contracts She said some of the certified staff testified that they didn't know what they had done wrong, and the board told them they "had done nothing wrong."
The loss of these jobs will undoubtedly make an impact on the local economy as many may have to relocate to find viable employment, leaving the rural area that many have called home for generations.
Caldwell further stated, in regard to the basis of her taking the case against the ADE, "It is hard to make people understand that the right to have a free public education doesn't exist in the cities only. That is attached with the right to be educated in the area in which you live. It means not having to ride the bus two hours. It should also include the fact that the community in which you live, there would be a school that you would be able to be educated in your community as opposed to going to other counties." She further stated in regard to the Twin Rivers case, "Your school would not even be in the county in which you reside. These students are not going to have the opportunity to participate in sports because of the distance of the schools." Caldwelll was referring to the hardships on parents in respect to having to transport them to and from activities. "We are taking away their opportunities. Our legislature saw that these isolated schools are important, they have set aside money and made laws to protect them. To have a right to have an education in rural Arkansas doesn't mean you shouldn't be able to have an education and grow up in the same area."
The Villager Journal will continue to follow the case.