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County school district stays under state control

The Pulaski County Special School District and the Helena-West Helena School District will remain in fiscal-distress status and under state control, the state Board of Education decided Monday.

The Pulaski County district has been in fiscal distress since May 2011 and has been under state control since June 2011. The Helena-West Helena district has been in fiscal distress since September 2010 and has been under state control since June 2011.

State Department of Education officials said the districts have made progress, but neither has resolved all of the issues that led to fiscal distress.

In the past, school districts had two years to get removed from fiscal-distress status or face mandatory consolidation or annexation with another district, but legislation enacted this year extends that deadline to five years.

State Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell, who supported the change in the fiscal-distress law, told the board it would not be feasible to merge the Pulaski County district or the Helena-West Helena district with another district.

Some in Jacksonville and Maumelle are seeking to detach from the sprawling Pulaski County Special School District and form separate school districts. Board member Vicki Saviers of Little Rock questioned whether the district should be restructured.

“If we’re looking at Jacksonville removing themselves — Maumelle now wants to remove themselves — do we need to be looking at another option for Pulaski County? I’m just saying, are we missing the forest for the trees there in trying to prop up a district?” she said.

Kimbrell said the district is improving under the leadership of state-appointed Superintendent Jerry Guess.

“Something that large, it takes a little while to get turned around. It’s turned around. It’s moving in the right direction.” he said.

But Kimbrell also said he believes the two districts are not yet ready to be removed from fiscal-distress status or released from state control.

The board voted Monday to remove the Drew Central School District from fiscal-distress status after state education officials said the district has corrected the issues that led to it receiving that classification for the 2012-13 school year.

Drew Central Superintendent Mike Johnston told the board the district has eliminated some positions, eliminated a boot camp program, eliminated long-term disability benefits for employees, raised its property tax millage by 4.9 mills, refinanced a bond issue, increased lunch prices and eliminated one bus route. The district is projecting a positive fund balance at the end of the current school year of between $1.4 million and $1.5 million.

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