Parents desperate to reverse the dissolution of their Northeast Arkansas school district by the state are declaring that their children are part of a minority group — Native American — and that the closure was discriminatory.
The state Department of Education says identifying students as Native Americans would have no impact on the state's decision to dissolve the district.
The state Board of Education voted Feb. 9 to take over the Twin Rivers School District, composed of schools at Williford and Oak Ridge, and “starburst” its students to neighboring districts. The district had been on probation for two years for accreditation rule violations.
The closing has been traumatic to parents in the district, many of whom have deep roots in the communities served by the schools and once attended the schools themselves. They are angry with the district's former superintendent, David Gilliland, who resigned before the state took action, for not making the schools' deficiencies known to the school board. Tempers have run high, and the department's designated superintendent, Tommy Arant, even called the Randolph County sheriff on a parent angered over the fact that his request to change his child's permanent record to reflect his Native American heritage wasn't acted on.
In the past couple of weeks, 42 parents — 33 at Williford and 9 at Oak Ridge — have asked the schools to change their children's permanent records to reflect Indian ethnicity. Arant has held the records, he said, waiting instruction from the department.
Prompting the sudden embrace of Indian blood is the Ozark Band of Cherokees Inc., a non-profit created in January by Williford resident Janice Maxwell. Some parents say that Maxwell and her husband, Dub, in meetings at their home, told residents that by acknowledging their Native American heritage they might be able to stop the closure of the district.
“The majority of this community is of Native American descent,” Maxwell said in an interview last week. She said the area was settled by Indians who stopped there on the Trail of Tears. Because of that, Maxwell said, she believes she can get federal grants to help the low-income area.
But she said she never told district parents that that by identifying themselves as minority, parents could save the school. “I never guaranteed them anything,” Maxwell said last week. She did say, however, that she has been in contact with the NAACP to discuss the parents' case.
Several years ago, Dub Maxwell, once a headman of the so-called Lost Cherokee Nation, and others who identified themselves with the group encouraged parents in North Arkansas districts to designate their children as Indian so their schools would get federal grants from the Office of Indian Education. In 2005, the OIE began to question some $1.08 million in grants received or applied for by a number of Arkansas districts showing a big rise in Native American students. The Russellville School District won a $162,000 grant after 751 children had identified themselves as members of the Lost Cherokee Nation, but turned it back when it realized the LCN was not a federally recognized tribe and the 25 percent Indian enrollment required for federal aid had not been met. Four other districts withdrew their applications for the money after they learned that the LCN had no federal standing.
Since then, feuding among parties within the LCN has split the group and Maxwell is no longer a member, his wife said.
Janice Maxwell was angry the Lost Cherokee issue was raised. She said she had never had anything to do with the group her husband led and that mentioning it would hurt the communities she was trying to help. She also questioned that the Lost Cherokee, one of several Arkansas groups claiming Cherokee heritage, were targeted when “I know they're not the only ones that has done stuff wrong.”
Charlie Tyler, who was a member of the Twin Rivers School Board until the state department dissolved it in February, said all he was told by the Maxwells was that by declaring his ethnicity, “it might help us get grants and different things like that.”
Tyler, who has been a vocal opponent of the state department's move to shut down the district, also tried to change his ninth-grade son's ethnicity on his enrollment form at Oak Ridge. Tyler became angry when he was informed by the school principal that Arant had instructed the school not to turn the altered forms in to the state department, he said. “I said, ‘That's a crock of bull,' ” Tyler recounted, and told a secretary that if “he don't accept it I'll shove it in his face.” Arant, who'd previously had a run-in with Tyler over board records, called Tyler after the incident and told him he was going to call the sheriff. A deputy arrived at Tyler's home sometime after that and arrested him on misdemeanor charges of harassment and terroristic threatening.
Neither Tyler nor Kenny Ladd, like Tyler a former school board member, think a showing of Indian population will help the schools. Ladd also said the Maxwells “have not asked for anything for their benefit. They have not asked anybody to join their non-profit corporation. We've been watching [out] for anybody to try to get personal gain.”
The greatest benefit, Ladd said, from the community's move to declare its Indian heritage is national media attention and attention to the area's high unemployment. “We're not trying to pretend we're something we're not.”