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Arkansas town rallies to save its school district

Susan Notes: It is heartwarming to know a community will rally around their school like this. And look for an update at the end of the story.



By Greg Toppo

It was Jan. 13 when the state officials from Little Rock came to tiny Pleasant Plains, Ark., with bad news: The Midland school district, already in debt after buying a roof for the high school, had overspent its budget, violating state law.

Midland, 70 miles north of Little Rock and home to two schools, would end the year $350,000 to$500,000 in the red.

State Education Commissioner T. Kenneth James dissolved the school board, appointed a new superintendent and recommended that the State Board of Education annex Midland to another district.

It was the end of Midland.

A few folks already knew about the grim finances, but for many it was a shock. Angry and confused, they met at the elementary school cafeteria, where Roger Hook, a Methodist pastor, stood up and suggested: Why not raise $400,000 and pay off the deficit?

What happened next is straight out of a Frank Capra movie: In the past month, people raffled off quilts, guns, cars, trucks, horses, artwork, power tools, furniture, baseball cards and cinnamon buns.

Kids emptied penny jars, and families took on second mortgages so they could donate $1,000. Banks offered special "Save Our School" interest rates. The tae kwon do club handed over $1,700 meant for a trip to a tournament.

"You go into the restaurants there, and that's all they talk about," says state Sen. Jack Critcher. At two benefit rodeo/bake sales, donors forked over nearly $41,000, including $110 for four trays of cinnamon buns baked by the wife of the high school vice principal.

Native son Daniel Haigwood, a pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies, heard about the auction while visiting and donated memorabilia that brought in $2,000. Children in neighboring Concord school district raised more than $300.

Midland had $400,039.56 in cash and pledges Sunday.

"There's almost a sense of adulation among us that we've done this," Hook says.

But the effort might be in vain: The state board will hear from Hook and others today and decide whether to annex Midland to a neighboring district.

James already has moved to dissolve two other financially troubled school districts since last fall, part of a larger effort to intervene when systems are "fiscally distressed."

"What the community has done is very commendable and very noble," James says. But "this is one-time money. What does it do for next year?"

He says the district's financial problems go back as far as 2001 and include loans it took on, without state approval, that it can't pay back. Several people running the relief effort say they knew nothing about the troubles until January, but James says the entire process has been "very open."

It was April 11, 2005, when the state classified Midland as "fiscally distressed." James met with the local board in August at a packed public meeting in the elementary school cafeteria and told them then that they had until Dec. 31 to submit a plan to get out of debt. He now says none of the three plans the board submitted was adequate.

Lea Ramsey, a mother of two who has served as the group's treasurer, says many townspeople understood the severity of the problem last summer but thought it had been taken care of when, in September, a tax increase was passed that is expected to raise $200,000 a year beginning next fall.

But she concedes the crisis has been a lesson in civic engagement.

"We're all to blame. I wasn't at every school board meeting. I wasn't asking questions, so I think we all have to shoulder a portion of the responsibility."

Ramsey's son, Jonathan, made local headlines when he handed over $1,000 he had been saving to see the New York Yankees play in May, although he's still going in George Steinbrenner's dime.

Actually, it's unclear whether the money raised can even be spent on the deficit. James' spokeswoman, Julie Thompson, said last week that attorneys were examining legal precedents. "This is kind of a first-time situation."

Critcher says it's a safe bet that the district won't overspend in the future, because its citizens have each bought what amounts to a share in the schools. "There will not be a school district in Arkansas as closely scrutinized by the patrons as Midland."

Jeanna Westmoreland, chair of the State Board of Education, says she has received hundreds of letters and e-mails from Midland itself the result of a 1985 merger between two smaller school districts. "I have never seen anything like it," she says.

She's hoping to glean "findings of fact out of what will undoubtedly be emotional presentations," but she also notes that Midland won't be the only district under the microscope today: Another small school district, also in "fiscal distress," awaits its fate at the same meeting. "We should pray for the wisdom of Solomon to be with us," she says.

In the meantime, kids at Midland High have taken to praying for their school district each Friday morning at the flagpole.

Says Ramsey: "The children have turned to the only one they know has full control."

And here's the follow-up to the story below.

Ark. board votes to spare Midland schools; Eudora merged

By Andrew DeMillo

LITTLE ROCK (AP) _ The Arkansas Board of Education voted Monday against merging the Midland School District into one of its neighbors after administrators showed that school patrons donated more than $400,000 to cover a shortfall in the district's budget.

The Pleasant Plains-based district will remain under state control until its financial situation improves and local officials prove they can keep the 568-student district from falling again into fiscal distress.

"This is unprecedented," Arkansas Education Commissioner Ken James said before the Monday afternoon vote. "What this community has done, I don't thik anyone in the state thought they could do."

Earlier Monday, the board voted to merge the financially troubled Eudora School District into a neighboring district at Lake Village, but will allow schools to remain open in the southeastern Arkansas town at least until the end of the academic year.

The Eudora district is projected to have a $386,000 deficit by the end of June. The district, which has 631 students, had asked the state board for more time to get its financial affairs in order but the panel rejected the request.

The Midland district faced a budget deficit of about $245,000 by the end of this fiscal year.

Midland school patrons raised money locally to pay off district debts and overcome a projected deficit in their effort to keep its schools open. From phone calls to amateur rodeos, the community was able to raise the funds in less than a month.

"We have been reawakened as a community," said Deborah Frazier, a former school board member and organizer of the fundraising drive. "We've been awakened to what could happen and how we could lose our school."

The state Board of Education, which dissolved the school board last month, had considered whether to move Midland students to any of seven districts that abut the Pleasant Plains area: Bald Knob, Batesville, Batesville Southside, Bradford, Concord, Pangburn or White County Central.

The state attorney general's office ruled last week that the state could legally accept money raised specifically for Midland, but that the board had to decide on its own whether the district would remain subject to annexation, consolidation or reconstitution.

Midland's supporters, many of whom wearing shirts saying "save our school," packed the board's auditorium and the adjoining lobby for Monday's meeting.

The school's backers originally reported they had more than $386,000 in a bank account to donate to the district. When the Education Department's attorney updated that number to more than $400,000, the crowd of supporters cheered loudly.

Charles Vondran, whom the state appointed as Midland's superintendent, said the district would carefully monitor its finances to ensure that annexation doesn't again become a threat.

"I think this case is over with, and I think the people of this district will be ever-vigilant from this point on," Vondran said.

Effective Monday, the state board merged the Eudora administration into the Lakeside School District at Lake Village, which has around 955 students. Schools in Eudora will remain open for now.

"These are definitely tough decisions, but it sends a message that we're going to take a close look at accountability," James said after the consolidation vote. "When you finish a year with 380,000-plus dollars in the red, something has to be done."

Lawyer Jimmie Wilson, who represented parents in Eudora, questioned how the state could order the district to fix financial problems when the state Supreme Court has ruled the overall state funding formula unconstitutional.

"It seems odd that one whose hands are dirty would try to wash the hands of another," Wilson told the board.

— Greg Toppo
USA Today
2006-02-13


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