by Max Brantley
Fox 16 reports that the Legislative Joint Auditing Committee, after another morning wrestling with the multiple financial problems found in audits of the Pulaski County School District, has recommended abolishing the Pulaski County School Board.
It's a dysfunctional bunch, no doubt, that has harbored slow pay and even deadbeating of public debts by members; which has voted fancy perks for itself while the district suffers, and includes a former School Board president, Tim Clark, who reportedly masterminded a (failed) video sting of another board member.
Can the legislature abolish a School Board? No. But the state has that power. Response from Education Department spokesman Seth Blomeley:
Under the Omnibus Education Act of 2003, the state education commissioner has various options available if there are continued problems with districts in fiscal distress [Pulaski is in that category]. Those include removing superintendents, abolishing school boards, and consolidating the district with another district.
We don't have any response today. [Education Director Tom] Dr. Kimbrell is not in the office today. He was informed of the recommendation by staff who were at the meeting. The recommendation is non-binding.
He will be reviewing it in coming days.
UPDATE: A person at the meeting said highlights from his point of view included:
* Sen. Linda Chesterfield's work finding a mountain of questionable expenses continuing in the district. She particularly focused on travel expenses, which the Board has tried to limit, by Superintendent Charles Hopson and the high cost, in the thousands, of holding training meetings at a local hotel rather than at school facilities. (Doesn't mean she's wrong, but I should note that Chesterfield's husband is president of a Pulaski district employees union that has been at odds with Hopson over pay and other issues.)
* Hopson's evasive answers on several questions and his apparent assertion that he'd make decision on what trips to take and how to spend independent of the board's requirement of board approval for out-of-state travel.
* Board President Bill Vasquez of Jacksonville's seeming agreement that the board was dysfunctional and should be replaced.
* An inability of school officials to say precisely how state desegregation aid was spent, beyond broad categorical spending. (I'm not sure the lawsuit settlement requires this, but it has become a popular line of attack. The biggest amount operates schools — teacher pay, in other words — and pays for transportation for interdistrict programs meant to promote desegregation.)
Don't know if this came up, but the district apparently had to pay a fat fine for not remitting payroll taxes to the IRS. From the Maumelle Monitor.
Here's more reporting on today's meeting from John Lyon at Stephens media.
UPDATE II: I talked late in the day with Superintendent Hopson. Read on:
Hopson told me later that he understood legislators’ frustrations. He said many of the concerns cited had already been addressed, including use of hotels for professional development meetings.
“We’ve worked at breakneck speed,” he said. “But when you’re trying to cover 10 years of inappropriate past practice in a 10-month period, we’re not going to be 100 percent perfect. But it’s not going to be because we didn’t try.”
Hopson said those present may have misunderstood his remarks about professional travel. He said he’d never been reimbursed for a trip that didn’t have board approval after the new policy, but said he viewed his job as a “moral imperative” and if there were trips to take that he thought were important for students, he’d taken them on his own time and money if need be. But he would not defy board policy.
He was questioned about a meeting of black school administrators, a meeting that he said was vital because of ongoing court concerns about racial equity in the district.
He said the district would work to provide legislators with more information on spending of state desegregation money. But he observed that legislators were working from a consultant’s report commissioned at a cost of $250,000 by Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, who’s fighting to end state support. The districts were not required to meet that degree of specificity by court orders, Hopson said. As I’ve noted, teachers and principals and buses and opening school buildings for interdistrict programs cost money.