‘… Our intention is to keep the school open’

‘… Our intention is to keep the school open’

State- appointed Earle superintendent outlines plans for district for City Council

news@theeveningtimes.com

The state appointed superintendent tasked with returning Earle School District to financial health says the state has no plans to shut the school down and will move forward with plans to build a new elementary school.

Arkansas Education Commissioner Johnny Key used his legal authority last week to take control of the Earle School District after audits turned up almost $2 million in improper expenditures over the last two years.

Dr. Richard Wilde, with the Arkansas Department of Education School Improvement Unit, who was appointed to oversee the school district’s affairs, told the City Council that Commissioner Key has made it clear that the state will work with Earle to address the problems.

“We will work through this,” Wilde said. “The department may have to loan the district some money.

But that has yet to be determined. At this point, I do not see, and the commissioner had been very up front, that our intention is to keep the school open and reestablish fiscal health.”

The school district has 560 students and operates an elementary and high school.

Earle School District was placed on the fiscal distress list after a review of the district found substantial audit violations and unallowable spending of state and federal funds dating back to 2015-2016 school year.

The review by the state found that corrections were not made to the budget and that the spending continued into the current academic year; poor fiscal management procedures; improper reporting of activity funds; current expenditures exceeded revenues; inaccurate fund balances; nonpayment to vendors; outstanding debts; and issues with payroll and employee contracts.

In addition to the fiscal problems, the state also noted multiple violations of Standards and Accreditation involving student transcripts, teacher assignments, and special education teacher certification.

Superintendent Ricky Nix resigned and the state suspended the authority of the Earle School District Board of Directors.

Wild said the school board will remain in an advisory capacity only.

“They will not have the authority to direct me or to approve expenditures,” Wilde said.

Wilde said Legislative Audit will begin conducting an audit of the district’s finances.

“What we are doing is a review,” Wilde said. “The audits identified problems in the 2015-2016 budget.

They could not find the documents that would support those federal expenditures.”

Earle School District will be required to repay the federal government $300,299 that was spent on unallowable expenses in 2015-2016 for which there is no paperwork for. The district may also have to return $303,436 of Title I money if school officials can’t redirect it to use for allowable expenses.

“We have a cash flow problem,” Wilde said. “The district expended somewhere between one to two million in unallowable expenditures. So there will be a requirement we pay those back over time. That put the district in jeopardy.”

Wilde reassured concerned city leaders that the district will still go ahead with plans to construct a new elementary school.

Voters approved a 10 mil hike to build a new $7 million, 42,000 square foot building to replace the current school, which was built in the 1950s. The new school will have 18 classrooms, a computer lab, media lab, art and music rooms, office space for school staff, and will put the students all under one roof. Plans call for demolition of the existing school building and several out buildings. The district will keep the gymnasium and cafeteria.

“We will move ahead to sell the bonds,” Wilde said.

“So we will continue the construction process as outlined.”

Councilman Charlie Young asked Wilde if there was a possibility the state will close the school.

“A lot of people are scared they will close the school down.” Young said.

Wilde said the state’s goal is to restore the school district to financial health and return control back to the city.

“There are no plans on the part of the commissioner to force a consolidation with another school district,” Wilde said.

Mayor Sherman Smith welcomed the positive news.

“It would be devastating if we didn’t have a school as part of our community,” Smith said. “So thank you for working with us.”

By Mark Randall

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