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The clock is ticking for Mountain Home Public Schools.
After meeting with state officials on Friday, MHPS was given a six-year deadline to completely eliminate and replace the “Big Top” hanging over Mountain Home High School and its original 1960s roof.
If the district’s school board and officials fail to find a way to replace the “Big Top,” the district could receive an “academic facilities distress” label from the Arkansas State Board of Education, leading to a full takeover of the school district by the state.
The “Big Top” must be replaced by 2030. MHPS is currently operating in a near $1 million deficit in its annual budget.
“After visiting with representatives from the Arkansas Division of Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation today, we have been informed that we will have until 2030 to eliminate the PMB structure (the big top and the buildings under it),” said MHPS Superintendent Allyson Dewey. “They have charged the Board with developing transition plans along the way during this 6-year window. The Board will begin transition planning in the coming weeks, and staff and community input will be essential as we move forward.“
A history of state takeover
Arkansas has developed a history of placing school districts in facility distress over the 21st century.
In 2008, Hermitage School District in Bradley County became the first school district in Arkansas to be fully taken over by the state after receiving the academic facilities distress designation.
The designation came from a 3-0 vote from the Arkansas Public School Facility and Transportation Commission, which went through with the decision “because of building code and procurement law violations found by state officials after the recent renovation or replacement of district schools.”
A month after being placed in facility distress, Hermitage School District was found to have improperly spent $157,866 on construction and renovation projects by the state’s Legislative Audit Division. The division also found that district officials failed to follow state bidding laws and had attempted to conceal contractual arrangements between the district and a district employee.
The district was given 30 days to submit a plan to state officials to fix its electrical, plumbing and air system deficiencies for each of the district’s three schools.
At the time, the takeover was called a “necessary evil.” The state takeover spurred voters to raise the district’s millage rate by 5 mills to pay for $210,000 in debt generated to fix its schools. The district was relieved from its academic facilities distress title in late 2009, though it would remain under state control until 2010.
While Hermitage School District was the first district to be taken over by the state, it was not the last, with Mammoth Spring, Mansfield and Osceola school districts joining Hermitage’s dilemma in 2009.
Each district was plagued by a strained budget and facility disrepair. Each district has faced a decline in its student population, leaving less tax dollars available for the districts to work with.
Mammoth Spring School District found itself on the list after straining its budget to hire state-mandated elementary art and physical education teachers. Mammoth Spring saw its cash balance drop from $429,052 in 2006-06 to $105,605 in June 2008.
Concord, Decatur, Gentry, Greenland, Hartford, Mineral Springs, Murfreesboro and Westside Consolidated school districts would quickly follow Mammoth Spring and Hermitage into receiving the academic facility distress label from the state.
Who’s under the gun today?
Today, five districts are currently under state authority – Earle, Pine Bluff, Lee County, Helena-West Helena and Marvell-Elaine. All five have experienced declining enrollment over the last ten years. More than 90% of each district’s students are African American.
Earle School District was released from its fiscal distress status in June this year but remains under state control until next May.
Its fiscal distress classification originally stemmed from records that reflected close to $2 million in improper expenditures of state and federal funds beginning in the 2015-16 school year. Additionally, the district’s elementary school was not maintained and was deemed unsafe for students.
To remedy Earle’s situation, the state loaned the district roughly $646,636 to pay back federal funds. The district made significant progress in replaying the loan in the lead-up to being removed from the state’s fiscal distress list.
Earle has made academic progress with student growth improving. A total of 71% of its teachers are now licensed.
The state gave the nod to Earle’s school board to begin taking back local control, though the board’s votes will still have to be approved by Education Secretary Jacob Oliva until May.
What’s next for MHPS?
With a potential state takeover in six years, MHPS officials are now in a predicament, despite having a several-year head start on trying to tackle its aging high school.
To date, every attempt to fix MHHS has ended in disaster for the school district, with voters rejecting attempts by the district’s school board to raise funds to rebuild entire portions of its high school.
Its first attempt in 2022 failed by a razor-thin margin, revealing a split community that was attempting to balance rising inflation and the district’s attempt to raise taxes to pay for what many called a “lavish” new high school.
That debate would turn ugly when the district’s school board voted to hold another special millage election earlier this year in an attempt to raise even more money than was requested in 2022. Local activists, spurred on by their own personal issues with former Mountain Home Superintendent Jake Long, mobilized against the district.
That mobilization resulted in a flurry of public accusations against Long and other district officials that were often incorrect, including an egregious claim that Long and one female official were having an affair.
But activists weren’t alone in being nasty, with some members on the pro-millage side lobbying accusations of white supremacy and other insults at voters who were against the millage.
In the background of all the personal fighting, a flurry of FOIA requests from two private citizens revealed that Long was polling school board members about their voters via texting. That revelation led to the Observer obtaining several months of text messages in a private school board group run by Long for nearly eight years.
MHPS would lose its special millage election in a landslide.
Now, the district faces a hefty budget deficit with teachers struggling to find money for their classrooms. The district is also currently in the middle of a hiring freeze, with MHPS Superintendent Allyson Dewey, who replaced Long after his resignation, opting to not replace teachers who retire or leave the district, so long as classroom sizes do not grow to be too large.
In addition to operating in a deficit, the district is also in the middle of paying for other much-needed repairs to all of its facilities, including MHHS’s track, which is also open for general public use. While most everything is being worked on, including the installation of new security doors at all of the district’s schools, some things, like replacing several of the district’s school buses, have been put on hold.
So what options are left?
To start, the district could cut services in an attempt to piecemeal the money together to replace the “Big Top” over MHHS, though success would be difficult due to already tight margins. The district could also attempt to raise funds through private donors in a similar manner to what it did with its high school football field.
Another millage election could also be on the table, though it would have to focus on just replacing the “Big Top” portion instead of completely overhauling the high school. Several of Mountain Home’s most vocal NO activists said they could get on board with raising the district’s millage rates by a small margin to pay for the replacement of the “Big Top” during this year’s special millage election.
Still, the attempt would likely be resisted by local activists.
Lastly, the district could take a loan from the state to pay for the “Big Top” replacement, in a similar manner to what was done with Earle School District.
Unlike the popular NO voter claim from this year’s special election, which claimed that the state would pay for the district’s new high school free of cost, the loan would have to be paid back to the state within a certain time frame.
The cost of repaying that loan would be paid for by district students, who would watch many of their extracurricular and after-school programs disappear as the district worked to repay the loan. Many of those programs provide students with the opportunity to obtain scholarships to college.
For now, the district’s school board has some serious decisions to make in the coming months. This continues to be a developing story.