By Joel Phelps
The Arkadelphia Public School District has seen a major improvement in its coffers thanks to an apparent review of staffing over the past several years, the Board of Education learned during its monthly meeting Tuesday.
School board member Gina White pointed out a $7.2 million figure she had never seen before on the monthly financial report. “That’s $2 million above where we were last year,” White said to Tammy Barger, the school district’s business manager. The spreadsheet White referred to included a month-by-month rundown of the general fund dating back to the 2016-2017 school year; at one point during the 2019-2020 school year that fund had dipped to as low as $1.5 million. White asked for an explanation on the district’s financial success.
“It is all pretty much tied to overstaffing,” Barger said. “We were so overstaffed that every penny we had we were spending for staffing — not for keeping our buildings up, not for keeping our maintenance and fleet up. So basically we had dug ourselves a great big hole, and now we’re coming out of that hole.”
Barger said if the district continues to be “mindful of every position” it can maintain a strong balance. “We have a lot of issues we have just let go, and that’s because we spent everything we had,” Barger said of previous years. Barger added that a legislative auditor, Tommy Hunter, had relayed to her that he had “never seen a district so close to financial distress and come out so quickly.” Barger later noted that the district in years past have used private auditors but is now using a state legislative audit instead.
Board member Kenneth Harris pointed out that the district at one point had 75 positions too many for its size. Superintendent Karla Neathery corrected that figure to total 100 positions, and noted the district had cut all but five. Harris asked whether there has been an increased responsibility among faculty and staff due to the cuts. Neathery said the district is keeping within the state’s requirements of teacher job duties.
Board member Blake Bell, who was presiding over the meeting in Casey Motl’s absence, said, “I think our faculty and staff have answered the bell. Because of reduced staff they’re having more kids in the classroom and they’re answering the call.”
Board member Jeff Root also applauded the work of administrators and faculty. “All of that, along with the better financial situation that we’re in, it all just leads to a greater sense of confidence in the district within the community.”
Bell added: “People are talking about Arkadelphia again, and in a good way.”
Board member Ida Tramble read the results of a self-evaluation of the board submitted by each member. Individuals submitted an evaluation of the board as a whole on variety of topics ranging from superintendent evaluations to transparency.
Harris, who is nearing four decades of service on the board, said, “I think this has been one of the best boards that I have seen and been a part of in the 40 years I have been here. I think we have differences. … We can always discuss things, talk through them and be very professional with each other.”
The board gave its approval of a one-time $750 bonus for all contracted district employees. The $197,370 to fund the bonus for all 215 employees comes from Enhanced Student Achievement funding. And, much like a Christmas bonus, one must be and active employee of the district at the time the bonus is given.
The board gave a unanimous nod to 150 iWave ion air purifiers for classrooms throughout the district. Funded by the Arkansas Department of Health and provided by Dawson Education Cooperative, the air purifiers were the “best bang for our buck,” said Jimmy King, director of support services. King, who requested bidding on the equipment, said he looked at two other types, one of which would have cost $300,000 apiece.
Board members OK’d a $47,944 expenditure for new Smartboards to be installed at Peake Elementary School. That equipment will be funded through Title 1 money and will be moved into the new Peake campus once it is built.
After much discussion, the board agreed to place a proposed stipend schedule under advisement until the its regular March meeting. Neathery said her team studied the stipends similarly sized districts offer, and revised the proposed draft at least twice before submitting it to the school board.
Addressing the two “veterans” of the board, Bell asked Root and Harris if they had any recollection of the Arkadelphia district updating its stipend schedule. Neither had any memory of doing so. Bell called the proposed schedule a “thorough document” that was “180 degrees to the good” compared to the previous one.
Harris pointed out that the athletic director’s stipend was significantly smaller than the head coaches and asked for rationale in making that decision. He learned that the athletic director also receives a stipend for coaching and, therefore, pulls down more than the head coaches in the end.
White took issue with a “discrepancy” between athletics and academics stipends, as the latter received less under the proposed schedule. “I would like to see those adjusted more than the coach/AD,” she said.
With only four active Covid-19 cases in the district and the nod from principals and head nurse, the board made a unanimous call to lift the mask mandate that had been put into effect at the beginning of the spring semester due to a spike in cases from the Omicron variant.
Prior to the decision, Arkadelphia had been one of four districts in the Dawson Cooperative service area to continue enforcing face coverings.
The board made its decision despite the district remaining “in the red” on Arkansas Center for Health Improvement’s map showing active Covid cases in school zones across the state. Neathery has the board’s authorization to lift and enforce masks based on that map, and the policy has been to enforce it when the district has between 30-49 cases; that map, she pointed out, hasn’t been updated since Feb. 7.
The school district is following suit of another academic entity, Ouachita Baptist University, which made masks optional at the beginning of this week. Henderson State University has yet to lift its mask mandate.
Board members met privately for 35 minutes to discuss personnel matters, including the superintendent’s contract. Neathery was excused from that session 10 minutes after it began, then invited to rejoin after another 10 minutes.
Upon reconvening in public, the board announced it would revisit personnel during its March 8 agenda planning meeting.
Peake keeping its name, improving its lunches
Noting pictures on social media of cafeteria meals at Peake, Bell asked Principal Mary Snowden if things had improved. Snowden said there is still limited variety (always nachos or pizza in the secondary line) but her concern was insufficient portion sizes.
“Let’s make it better,” Bell said.
Finally, Bell made it clear that Peake will retain its name even after completion of a new facility at that campus. “Peake will be Peake, end of discussion,” Bell said. “And everything on that block will be Peake.”
Tramble said she had recently met with the Clark County Retired Teachers group and learned an historical account of the school’s namesake, J.E. “Ed” Peake. During that session, Tramble said, members discussed the original deed to the property, and noted it was in Peake’s will to deed that land to the school district.