With their single-district days behind them, leaders of this newly wedded system are looking for ways to make the relationship work.
People in this rolling, scenic valley between the Ozarks and Ouchita mountains have a lot in common. Mostly, they farm or log for a living. Some drive to larger towns to work in factories. Most who live in this area, roughly 100 miles northwest of Little Rock, are white and Protestant.
As of this school year, they share something else in common: a school district. The four districts that make up the newly christened Two Rivers are among 57 rural Arkansas systems that state lawmakers forced to consolidate with their neighbors.
Making one school district out of several never is easy, even though the transition in Two Rivers is going smoothly in many ways. Still, it’s impossible to overstate how much the merger could end up changing the communities around here.
Three districts—plus another that voluntarily merged with one of them earlier in the year—have lost their local school boards and superintendents, and eventually could lose jobs and even their schools. One campus has been closed already.
“We made the best marriage we could make, with the rules the state board and legislature enacted,” says Jack O’Reilly, the former superintendent of the Fourche Valley district (pronounced FUSH), and now an assistant superintendent for the merged district.
Yet the toughest decisions loom—which schools will stay open, which community leaders must leave—as does perhaps the biggest question of all: Will all the changes make education better for the children of rural Arkansas?
Says John Young, the president of the new school board: The transformation is “not just a business decision, it’s a cultural change.”
The communities that make up the new Two Rivers district, named for the Fourche LaFave and Petit Jean rivers that run through the terrain, all look the same to a city dweller. But each has a personality and history. These are places where the whole town still turns out for a basketball game, where huge pictures of each graduating class decorate the hallways of every campus.
Two Rivers spans about 78 miles east to west, across portions of four counties, and serves 1,085 students. Its headquarters is in Ola, the largest town in the district, where people in this part of Yell County travel to do their shopping.
Plainview, a smaller town, sits five miles west. Then, it’s another eight miles to the even smaller Rover community. Ten miles past Rover, Fourche Valley School is the only real sign of the Briggsville community, except for a few houses and the winding highway with a mountain view.
On the opposite side of Ola, the little town of Perry marks the easternmost point in the district, about 26 miles from the nearest school in Two Rivers. Casa, a smaller community, sits roughly halfway between Ola and Perry.
It was these kinds of communities that Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee had in mind last fall when he first called for a majority of high schools to merge. Rural educators and advocates began a legislative and legal battle that exhausted the entire state, what the Republican governor recently called the most “hellish” experience of his political career.
The governor didn’t get his way, but neither did many of Arkansas’ smallest schools. While they avoided the high school mergers, legislators passed a law in March requiring every district with fewer than 350 students to unite with one or more neighbors—by July—with the goal of saving money.
In the Two Rivers area, school leaders began talks that would result in a merger that so far, at least, works better on paper than in reality. Not every district ended up with its first choice of partner. Fourche Valley leaders held talks with another neighboring district before settling on its partners in Two Rivers, avoiding the plight of some districts that had their mergers arranged by the state education board.
After the Ola district agreed to absorb the Perry-Casa schools, Ola officials alerted the neighboring systems in Plainview-Rover and Fourche Valley. Fearing their schools might be closed if Fourche Valley merged only with Plainview, officials agreed to combine forces if the merger was a four-way deal.
The four districts formed an interim school board chosen from the ranks of each of their local boards. The interim board picked the district’s name and leaders: Earl Jamison, who was the superintendent in Ola, would become the enlarged district’s superintendent; Jimmy Cunningham, Plainview-Rover’s superintendent, would take over as the assistant superintendent for transportation and student services; and O’Reilly in Fourche Valley would be the assistant superintendent for grants and technology.
Principals met all summer to coordinate bus and school schedules, calendars, student handbooks and rules, and more, tasks accomplished with relative ease. Once the Arkansas secretary of state’s office approved voting districts for a permanent school board, Two Rivers held elections in September. The new board took office last month.
For now, the former superintendents are expected to manage the schools in each of their communities and carry out their districtwide duties—dual responsibilities that seem to have put them in limbo. They have to get the approval of Superintendent Jamison at the central office in Ola, for instance, when buying equipment for a local school. Yet, if a bus-route issue arises, Cunningham’s in charge even though the crisis may be taking place three counties away.
“They all do things differently, and in order to really condense all those things into one management unit, it’s difficult,” says Young, the Two Rivers board president. “There are the problems of people that resent being forced to consolidate. But we expected that, and quite frankly, you know, it’s a hard pill to swallow.”
The superintendent and other district leaders contend that so far, the merger has not saved money. The state added funding this year for most districts, but local leaders say it has mostly gone to equalize teacher pay across the state.
“The next step is, how can we do those things that we need to do and become more efficient in providing the services?” Jamison says. “And I don’t suppose that anything really is off the table.”
Adds Young: “We are going to be facing some tough times next year, and so some decisions will have to be made before next year about how we can save money. Ultimately, it’ll be cheaper, more efficient, and kids will receive a better education as a result of it.”
What May Be Lost
Fourche Valley School sits at the westernmost corner of the Two Rivers district, 17 miles from Plainview. O’Reilly and other educators in Fourche Valley fear that the campus, the smallest of the schools, could be the first to close if district leaders decide to make any cuts.
Already, he says, Fourche Valley students face two-hour bus rides each morning and afternoon. A school closing would increase the four hours of commute time.
“How much farther do you want the kids to ride?” asks O’Reilly, a Michigan native and former big-city principal around Detroit and Phoenix, who plays Irish folk music in his office inside a double-wide trailer. “How much more time do you want to waste?”
A confounding set of building needs complicates the situation. A donor recently helped Fourche Valley’s elementary and high schools—all on the same campus—build a new gym, complete with arena-style seating. The building includes a new science lab, cafeteria, and a distance-learning classroom with widescreen TVs.
“I don’t think you could prove academically or financially that closing Fourche Valley high school would benefit the district,” O’Reilly says.
Clint Beggs, elected in September to represent Fourche Valley on the Two Rivers school board, isn’t as worried as O’Reilly.
“I don’t think you’ll see any physical consolidation within 20 or 30 years, unless we face a government mandate,” Beggs says. “I personally feel like our little school is safe for a while.”
But it’s a legislative mandate that may kill Fourche Valley. While Gov. Huckabee says forced mergers aren’t on the table for next year, other factors may turn up the heat on smaller schools.
Lawmakers plan to begin debate in January on how to repair school buildings, as a result of a state supreme court ruling. Also, some legislators want to cut special funding for isolated schools like Fourche Valley.
“We’ve been forced to do this; we’re going to make it work; we’re going to find some way to make it better,” says Beggs. But he can’t help but add that he remains frustrated about the merger and the hostility he believes the state has toward small rural schools.
“It still burns,” Beggs says.
Elsewhere in Two Rivers, educators fear they will lose their roles in communities where they were born, raised, or have worked for years.
Cunningham was born near the town of Plainview, only a few blocks long and anchored by a quaint village of school buildings.
He went to school there, was the principal, and became the superintendent 11 years ago. It’s also the place where his two children finished school, and the community where his 19-year-old son is buried.
Even so, his job in Two Rivers may not last.
“Are you the pumpkin man?” Cunningham asks, jumping from his truck and greeting a friend who stands beside a John Deere tractor. Around them, children ramble through a pumpkin patch.
The Plainview school owns this 30-acre farm. Students in the agriculture classes run the farm and the town’s coin-operated carwash.
In a barn across the ridge from the pumpkins, parents and students hold a fall festival. People pet calves, baby goats, and even a llama. “Watch out—it’ll spit on you,” a young boy warns. Volunteers serve cider and paint children’s faces.
“I know all the parents and how to get in touch with them. I know what their circumstances are,” Cunningham says.
Kerry Cunningham, Jimmy’s wife and the elementary school principal at Plainview-Rover, is bracing for the possibility that her husband may have to move on. While his contract keeps him here another year, next year looks uncertain. Leaders of Two Rivers could cut his job.
She worries that Cunningham’s role as the Arkansas Rural Education Association’s president—which sent him to Little Rock almost daily to battle school consolidation during the special legislative session—makes him seem unnecessarily resistant to the changes here.
The couple also dread their possible move because they feel they’d be leaving behind their son, Lance, who died in a pickup-truck crash last year.
Kerry Cunningham says the experience transformed her husband from a quiet man into a brave warrior who stood up against Huckabee and many lawmakers, and was able to preserve many of the state’s rural schools.
“He went to the Capitol every day with a picture of Lance in his pocket,” she says.
Sherry Holliman, a native of the Casa community and a graduate of the local high school, had the unenviable task last year of closing down her alma mater.
The former superintendent of the Perry-Casa system for six years, and the principal and a teacher at the K-12 campus before then, she realized last school year that her staff would be too small to meet Arkansas’ new academic requirements for high schools. State legislators were dead set on closing small schools or districts like hers anyway.
“We were getting by. I had to ask myself, is getting by what we truly want to do?” Holliman recalls.
Only two months before the legislature decided the fate of Fourche Valley, Plainview-Rover, and other small districts, Perry-Casa joined the Ola system on its own. Ola leaders turned the former Perry-Casa campus into an alternative school, leaving fewer than 10 students in Holliman’s hometown school.
Holliman says she was hired as curriculum supervisor for the entire Ola district. But Ola school leaders restricted her duties mainly to oversight of the alternative school, she says. Her impatience with the transition in Two Rivers suggested it was time to leave.
“I have a great respect for all three men that are in that district,” she says. But it’s hard for her to hide disappointment over what happened. “I was not going to be the instructional leader of the district,” Holliman says.
In July, she became the superintendent in Carlisle, Ark., a school system in a small town 98 miles away.
Holliman says community rivalries must not interfere with efforts to improve the Two Rivers schools. The campuses still must work to improve what and how they teach, she adds.
“With some time, planning, and combining of the resources of the three or four districts, there can be some great things done for kids,” she says.
The Road Ahead
Jimmy Cunningham and some other educators here feel that the former leaders in Ola have too much control over their smaller schools.
“Anytime there is one district that is significantly larger than the other ones, they control everything,” he says.
But an unexpected alliance may be transforming the power structure already. While the old Ola district elected three members to the seven-member school board, the smaller communities have four seats. With the majority, the smaller communities can thwart any school closings in the near future or push their will on any other issue as well.
“Regardless of what happens, we are still going to have rural kids and rural communities,” Cunningham says. “We’re going to make it work.”
Vol. 24, Issue 13, Pages 33-35