2 Ark. Superintendents Indicted in Student-Transfer Pact
Early in this century, students from rural Claiborne and Union parishes in northern Louisiana began attending school in the nearby border town of Junction City, Ark., instead of traveling as far as 16 miles to the nearest schools in their home state.
In return, the Louisiana districts supplied the Junction City public schools with teachers, transportation services, and supplies.
Now, however, Alvin Kelly, the superintendent of the Junction City schools, and his predecessor, Paul Muse, have been indicted on state felony charges for honoring that long-standing agreement.
"All of those arrangements were made back in the time when a man could keep his word," Mr. Kelly, who has been at the helm of the system since 1992, said in an interview last week. "I assume it was a gentleman's agreement."
Mr. Kelly was charged with two counts of theft of public benefits, while Mr. Muse, who was superintendent for six years before he retired, was charged with six counts. Each count carries a maximum 20-year prison sentence. Both men were released without bond.
On Oct. 30, prosecutors charged that the defendants "obtained or retained public funds/aid from the Arkansas Department of Education to which the Junction City School District was not entitled by falsely stating and/or misrepresenting Louisiana residents/students to be Arkansas residents/students." Legal papers cite the value of the benefits at $2,500 or more.
'Someone To Hang'
Until 1994, 330 students from Union Parish attended Junction City schools. They stopped coming after Union Parish decided it could not afford to reimburse Junction City for the per-pupil cost, which was higher than the Union district's. The loss of the Arkansas state funding for those students forced Junction City to raise taxes and lay off staff members.
School board meetings were packed for months, Mr. Kelly said, with Union Parish parents who didn't want their children to change schools.
"For a long, long time it worked," Mr. Kelly said of the arrangement. "Now, they want someone to hang."
Under a five-year deal, students from Claiborne Parish--87 this year--continue to attend school in the Arkansas district. Claiborne Parish supplies teachers to Junction City with the total value equaling the cost of educating those students in Claiborne, about $3,200 per child, Mr. Kelly said.
Pat Hall, a Junction City school board member from 1989 to 1994, asked local authorities to investigate the Arkansas district's role in educating Louisiana students.
In an interview last week, she alleged that students--particularly good athletes--were sometimes recruited by the Junction City district from as far away as Shreveport, La., near the Texas border. She said the practice of allowing Louisiana students to attend school in Junction City mushroomed over time when superintendents "figured out that it was a moneymaking situation if lots of Louisiana students went there."
Ms. Hall estimated that the district received roughly $1 million a year in state aid alone for the Louisiana students.
Ms. Hall, whose brother and husband are Arkansas teachers, has also filed suit seeking to overturn a law allowing Louisiana teachers to work in Arkansas without additional certification.
"I don't want Louisiana employee teachers teaching Arkansas children," she said. Ms. Hall also claimed that Louisiana teachers have served on personnel-policy committees that decide on issues affecting Junction City teachers, including salary matters.
Mr. Kelly denied that any recruiting of student-athletes took place. He noted that Union Parish officials approved transfers for students who wanted to attend school in the Arkansas district, and said that most Louisiana students who enrolled in Junction City schools did so because their parents and grandparents did.
Moreover, Mr. Kelly maintained, Louisiana teachers are treated like any other staff members but do not vote on salary schedules.
"It's rather stupid to be honest with you," Mr. Kelly said about the charges. "I'm trying to provide an education for a group of kids."