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New legislation prompts requests to delay Marvell-Elaine School District consolidation

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Antoinette Grajeda
/
Arkansas Advocate
Fannie Fields asks the State Board of Education not to consolidate the Marvell-Elaine School District as district officials and community members listen during a meeting on Mar. 9, 2023.

Fileshia Powell said she’s been “fighting and praying” to keep the Marvell-Elaine School District open so her daughter, an honor roll student, can graduate from there next May.

The rural Phillips County district is scheduled to be consolidated with another district this summer due to low enrollment, and Powell said the process has been tough on students and the community.

“I’m praying that we can get all of the help that we need at Marvell to be able to keep our kids there,” Powell said. “They’re depressed about all of this. I’m having that sense of depression about all of this because of my daughter…we’re just asking for a chance. We need that chance.”

Powell was one of nine people who spoke at the Arkansas State Board of Education’s meeting Thursday where they pleaded with members not to close their school. The board allowed time for public comment at the meeting and plan to take action at a later date.

"If the plan is to close down schools with less than 350 students, soon there will be no schools in the Delta, none."

-LaTara Burrell, a Marvell resident and graduate of the Marvell-Elaine School District.

The Marvell-Elaine School District is being consolidated under the Public Education Reorganization Act of 2004, which requires the Department of Education to consolidate schools whose daily average membership falls below 350 for two consecutive years.

Marvell-Elaine has 306 students and 92% are African American, according to the Arkansas Department of Education.

Act 377 of 2015 allows districts to submit a waiver to avoid consolidation, but Marvell-Elaine’s request was denied by the state board in December.

“If the plan is to close down schools with less than 350 students, soon there will be no schools in the Delta, none,” said LaTara Burrell, a Marvell resident and graduate of the district. “So I feel like that needs to be addressed as well, but I pray that you all find it in your hearts to leave Marvell-Elaine where it is and just give us the necessary help that we need.”

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Antoinette Grajeda
/
Arkansas Advocate
State Education Board member Randy Henderson (left) and Education Secretary Jacob Oliva (right) listened to public testimony during a state board meeting on Mar. 9, 2023.

Sen. John Payton (R-Wilburn) has filed a bill that would remove the requirement for schools with less than 350 students to consolidate, though they could voluntarily do so if they choose.

The Senate approved Senate Bill 262 on Monday and it will next be heard by the House Education committee.

In a letter dated Feb. 28, the Marvell-Elaine superintendent and board president requested that the state board suspend obligations to finalize a consolidation plan until after lawmakers consider the bill.

The state board’s general counsel responded that under current law, if the district didn’t file for voluntary administrative annexation or consolidation by Mar. 1, the state board must consolidate the district by May 1, with the consolidation being effective July 1.

According to the district’s letter, merging with the Barton-Lexa School District would be “the least disruptive approach” because it’s only 8 miles away. However, the neighboring district “indicated it was unwilling to accept students from Marvell or Elaine.”

Two other districts showed interest in accepting Marvell students, but not Elaine students, according to the letter. Currently, 69 Elaine students attend the Marvell-Elaine district.

Elaine Scaife is a 1987 Marvell graduate and board director of the Marvell Community Empowerment Incorporation. While she lives in Indianapolis, Scaife has family in Marvell, including a niece who’s a junior at the local high school.

Scaife said she rerouted her flight home from vacation to attend Thursday’s meeting in Little Rock where she suggested using a virtual learning program to address a teacher shortage and proposed alternatives to consolidation.

The Marvell High alum noted that when the Dollarway School District was annexed into the Pine Bluff School District in 2021, it was allowed to keep its location, name and mascot. She said the same could be done for Marvell-Elaine with a nearby district.

Scaife said she would prefer to take advantage of the school transformation contract provision of the new LEARNS Act, which was signed into law Wednesday.

Under the law, public school districts with a “D-” or “F-” rating or in need of Level 5-Intensive Support can be exempt from state takeover if they partner with an open-enrollment charter or another State Board-approved entity to create “a public school district transformation campus.”

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Antoinette Grajeda
/
Arkansas Advocate
Long-time educator Rosie Tate requests that Marvell-Elaine students not be required to take long bus rides to school through the consolidation process, during a State Education Board meeting on Mar. 9, 2023.

An ADE spokesperson said the transformation campus provision would not apply to Marvell-Elaine because the district is being consolidated for low enrollment. Both Marvell-Elaine’s high school and elementary school have an “F-”ranking.

“It is not the fault of the students that they have the lowest test scores in the state and that certified licensed teachers cannot be recruited and retained,” Scaife said. “These students are bright and they can learn and we must do what’s in the best interest of these students by bringing to them the best education in their own communities, and put any burdens of traveling on the administration and not the students.”

Forcing rural students to travel even further distances to school under consolidation was by far the biggest concern from community members Thursday.

The Elaine School District merged with the Marvell School District in 2006. Elaine is about 25 miles from Marvell.

The Marvell-Elaine School District is 21 miles from Helena-West Helena, 28 miles to Clarendon and 33 miles to Brinkley or DeWitt, all nearby communities with school districts.

Rosie Tate is a veteran teacher who knows the route between Marvell and Elaine well because she drove to Elaine when she started teaching five decades ago.

“Don’t have those kids going any further, please. It’s just been hard on them,” Tate said. “Those kids have to ride it so far from Elaine down there until they’re asleep when the bus stops and they have to wake them up to get off to go to class.”

State board chair Ouida Newton suggested that the board’s April meeting be held at Marvell-Elaine so they “can hear from the community and it will not be a hardship for the community to have input.”

In addition to public comment, the board will also hear the Division of Elementary and Secondary Education’s recommendation for the Marvell-Elaine School District at April’s meeting. Newton said the board will probably act on that information next month.

Marvell-Elaine superintendent Katina Ray told the Advocate she’s encouraged by the state’s board’s intention to visit her district and is requesting more time to figure out the best situation for students.

“We are open to anything that will help save our district and so that’s where we are,” Ray said. “We want to put the very best, whatever that looks like, and right now we can’t say. We don’t know what that will look like, but that’s why we’re asking for that additional time.”

Antoinette Grajeda is a multimedia journalist who has reported since 2007 on a wide range of topics, including politics, health, education, immigration and the arts for NPR affiliates, print publications and digital platforms. A University of Arkansas alumna, she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and a master’s degree in documentary film.