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Takeovers Threatened, 25 Ark. Districts Address Deficiencies

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The Arkansas Department of Education is working with 25 school districts to improve academic or financial problems that, if not solved, could lead to a state takeover.

The state is forcing the districts to change their ways under a new law that establishes a three-year window for districts to raise student performance and improve their end-of-year balances--or face state intervention.

Arkansas education department Director Gene Wilhoit has declared 13 school districts in "academic distress" and said seven others are in "financial distress." Two districts made both lists. Mr. Wilhoit warned another seven districts that their test scores put them on the edge of joining the academically troubled list.

The 1995 law requires the distressed school districts to file plans with the state explaining how they will solve their problems.

If things don't improve after one year, the state will assemble a team of educators to recommend further changes. If that fails, the state will take over and decide whether to dismiss the school board or local superintendent. A final option would be to consolidate a troubled district with a neighbor.

A Wake-Up Call

But the state promises to help at every stage, hoping it won't need to usurp local control, said Frank Anthony, the state's assistant director for technical assistance.

So far, Mr. Anthony said, the state's moves have not caused the controversy that usually accompanies state intervention in local school systems.

The state avoided a lot of problems by informing the troubled districts well in advance of releasing their names, he said.

"It was just a courtesy call to say, 'This is where you are. You'll be getting an official letter,'" Mr. Anthony said.

Superintendents in districts cited for poor academics say they are making progress, despite the negative attention that has come with their labels.

"It's been a pretty smooth operation so far," said Al McDonald, the superintendent of the 200-student Carthage district.

"There was definitely a stigma attached to it, but that's part of it," said Richard Britt, the superintendent of the 500-student Waldo system. "It's kind of a wake-up call for us."

In response to the state action, Waldo formed a 25-member task force of educators and community leaders to discuss how to raise students' scores on the Stanford Achievement Test, the barometer the state uses to identify struggling school districts.

A "distressed" district is one that has 40 percent or more of its students ranking below the 25th percentile on the test.

State officials held a workshop for the Waldo task force, helping it define its goals and identify ways to meet them, Mr. Britt said.

Mr. Anthony said his staff offered similar help to other school boards and superintendents as they wrote the improvement plans they filed with the state last month. It also is training administrators and principals, showing them ways to help teachers improve instruction.

Some Problems Solved

On the financial side, some superintendents complained about the state using 2-year-old audits to determine a district's financial health.

At least two districts say they already have solved their problems.

The Earle school district landed on the watch list because its end-of-year balance fell for three straight years in the early 1990s. The 950-student district had to pay for emergency roof repairs on a building and needed to add new teachers, said Superintendent Jack Crumbly.

The district has since won voter approval for higher property taxes, so its bottom line has improved, he said.

"We can easily show that we stabilized it," Mr. Crumbly said.

The Bay school district saw its balances decline in the early 1990s because it used general-fund money to furnish two new schools with desks and other equipment.

It did not have enough bond money to pay for the equipment, said Forrest Jackson, the superintendent of the 650-student district.

"We took a calculated risk in spending money on these new buildings," Mr. Jackson said. The district is projected to have a $225,000 surplus this year. "This is the best fiscal condition we've been in since I've been here.

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