Dear Patrons and Supporters of the Helena-West Helena School District:
For several months, many of you have contacted me with immense concern about the future of several of the district’s school buildings, particularly West Side, Beechcrest, and Woodruff. I want you to know that I, along with a majority of our board members, have approached this issue with the utmost concern and with a mindset to act in accordance with what is in the best interests of the Helena-West Helena School District and its students. I am writing this open letter to our patrons and supporters so that they can be fully informed as this state-imposed process concerning the buildings progresses.
First, let me begin with some of the legalities related to this issue. Contrary to what some people lobbying for the charter school have contended, the district does not have to sell any property. The statutes that would force a sale for nonuse only apply to school districts that consolidated under the ACT 60 legislation that was passed in the wake of the Lakeview case. Helena-West Helena has not been involved in any consolidation under the provisions of that law. Consequently, it does not apply to our buildings and we have a legal opinion from the widely-respected school attorney Brad Beavers on this matter.
However, if the district were to decide to sell a building, then the charter school would have a right of first refusal to purchase the buildings at fair market value, which Mr. Beavers told our Board should be determined by an appraisal. I asked the state-appointed Superintendent, Mr. John Hoy, if we planned to get appraisals on the buildings so that we would have some guidance when making our recommendations concerning any bids. He informed me that there were no plans to get appraisals at this time.
Second, let’s summarize where the situation is as of today. The state-appointed Superintendent, whose previous job was with the Arkansas Department of Education, began advertising for bids on all of the aforementioned district properties. This is happening over the objection of the local board, which has a majority opposed to selling most of the district’s property. The only property that we are on record as considering for sale is West Side and that consideration was to possibly sell to the West Side Community Hub, a nonprofit organization that would be working with our students in addition to their other programming.
This group began working with our previous Superintendent, Suzann McCommon, who, while state-appointed, has lived in our community for over 40 years and who began her career in the Helena-West Helena School District. She rose to the position of Special Education Director in the Helena-West Helena School District before becoming the founding director of the Great Rivers Education Cooperative. In the three years she served us as the district's top executive, I always believed she put HWHSD first and stood her ground on our behalf when dealing with Little Rock.
She and the West Side Community Hub worked together on a plan. The West Side group has a detailed plan for use of the building and a sustainability plan for maintaining the structure. The district had a right of first refusal if the group ever wanted to sell the building and no competing school was going to be allowed in the building as a condition of the low-cost sale. It was a win-win for the district and the group. They got the building and we received programming for our kids.
This move was stopped at the Arkansas Department of Education. Shortly after Ms. McCommon’s return to Great Rivers, Mr. Hoy received a letter from Scott Shirey, KIPP's leader, asking to see the buildings, including West Side. Mr. Hoy asked for permission to show the buildings. We said no because we were not interested in selling any of the other properties, which meant there was no need to show them to the director of a competing school.
At a later meeting, Mr. Hoy asked for permission to put the buildings on the market. His recommendation never received a second. After that meeting, he went to Little Rock and either received permission or an order from Tony Wood, the Commissioner of Education, to put the buildings on the market, which is where we stand today. The buildings, which were constructed and paid for by the Helena-West Helena School District, are being put up for the equivalent of a fire sale in a bad real estate market with the consent of two people- the Commissioner of Education, who is likely going to be gone in January when the State of Arkansas gets a new Governor, and the ADE- appointed Superintendent.
Third, there needs to be a discussion of why a majority of the local board opposed putting the buildings on the market. The school district does not have a complete long-term facilities plan and there are possible uses that had been discussed for some of the buildings. Even some members of the West Side group had discussed options where the district maintained ownership and allowed them to use the building for various programming. Two options have been briefly discussed over the past year for Beechcrest. One was the possibility of moving the administration offices to that location since that would more centrally locate the top administrators. Also, the office building where they currently are housed would be easier to sell than a school building because it is smaller with a more diverse set of possibilities for use. Another option for Beechcrest property that had even been briefly mentioned by the state-appointed Superintendent in his first 100 days was reopening the campus for the lower elementary grades since we are near capacity at the primary school.
As you can see, the board wanted time to complete the development of a long-term facilities plan with the consultation of the district’s architect and the new Superintendent before simply unloading the property. I think that would have been prudent.
Another important consideration for us was KIPP’s right of first refusal. We have seen with the growing political pressure to move on these buildings since the arrival of Mr. Hoy and with KIPP’s own letters of interest, presentations on this subject to a legislative committee, and with their alleged lobbying in the highest halls of state government, that this appears to be an effort to ram through the transfer of a building to them while we do not have local control and before the elections where a new Governor might pick a different Commissioner at the Arkansas Department of Education.
With that in mind, I think it is important to note that as the board appointed to provide a voice to the local district’s patrons, it is our primary responsibility to consider the best interests of the school district and our students. These schools are located in neighborhoods where we have stronger enrollment. If KIPP were to get a building and increase their seating capacity and have a campus on the western side of the city, then we would have to be concerned about a loss of enrollment because of the charter school putting an operation within walking distance of those families, which have stuck with the district through the closure of these schools and the consolidation of previous elementary schools on the Miller campus.
Let’s assume for a moment a conservative loss of enrollment of just 30 kids. That represents over $210000 per year and those kids would be in school for 13 years. That is $2.73 million. The number would likely rise for a few years. In short, if the charter school gets a building then it is a decision that will be negatively impacting the school district after I am dead and gone and one that will have cost us millions of dollars. That’s not in the best interests of our school district or the students we serve. I cannot in good conscience support anything that would hurt our district and wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if I ever voted for something that would betray the interests of our schools and the students we are entrusted to educate.
In closing, I do not believe that a decision of this magnitude should be made by one man in Little Rock and implemented by one man who works for him who does not answer to the community. This is a decision that should be delayed until local control is returned and the various opinions amongst our local community can be heard.
KIPP is trying to kick us while we are down and use a state takeover to obtain a building for pennies when they have the support of fat cats who could build them their own buildings. They get money from large donors who don't give the public schools a dime. To try and use our misfortune to take a building in these circumstances isn’t morally right even if it is legally allowed.
This entire exercise is just another example that, while KIPP's supporters say this is about competition, it is really about the destruction of public education because you cannot have a competition when the two sides play by different rules. KIPP can hire people that HWHSD can't to be teachers. KIPP can fire people without due process while HWHSD must follow the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act. KIPP can hire a person with only a Bachelors degree to be the equivalent of a Superintendent while HWHSD must have someone certified with the equivalent of a Masters plus 30 hours. KIPP can kick out students for virtually no reason with minimal due process. HWHSD has to follow lots of state laws that are waived for KIPP in this area. KIPP can cap enrollment to limit expenditures. HWHSD cannot and must add staff regardless of cost even if it is just one student over the limit for a teacher to have in a day. As you can see, this isn't a level playing field and now KIPP is wanting to get a building that belongs to HWHSD when HWHSD couldn't get the state to give them one of theirs if we needed or wanted it. We would have to build if we needed space. KIPP should have to do the same.
I take seriously my responsibility to represent the Helena-West Helena School District, our students, and our patrons. I taught at Central High School. My late Grandmother worked many years for the Helena-West Helena School District. I have two grandchildren who live with me enrolled in our schools. I love the district, and as long as I am breathing I will not betray our district regardless of how much political pressure is brought to bear. Our kids deserve the best and what they are seeing with this matter is that there are a lot of powerful people who aren’t considering what’s best for them and their schools and are considering the desires of the rich and the powerful who are seeking to dismantle public education in the name of choice and competition. I encourage you to contact the Superintendent, the Commissioner of the Arkansas Department of Education, and our state legislators- Representative Chris Richey and Senator Keith Ingram and express your thoughts on this matter.
President, HWHSD Advisory School Board