A Strong Housing Crisis
VIDEO ALERT: Conflict erupts between a school board president, an art teacher and her family in remote Huttig
[South Arkansas Reckoning spent Friday and Saturday in the Strong-Huttig School District investigating an art teacher's housing dilemma.]
Brandye Snead McCue stood in a camping tent on a carport in the tiny town of Huttig Saturday afternoon folding her family's laundry.
Stressed and tired, McCue, a newly hired art teacher in Union County’s Strong-Huttig School District, was at a loss at what happened to her and her family a week earlier.
That's when McCue and her husband had an explosive exchange with the school board president over hazardous living conditions in a school-owned rental property in front of McCue's nine-year-old child that resulted in calls to law enforcement.
"We don't know what to do," McCue said. "I told them I didn't have a place to stay down here. They said they had some rental houses."
The McCues rented one of them on August 17 and have been disheartened ever since over the living conditions in the house, which is 16 miles from the school district's campus.
The house has a leaking roof, exposed interior and exterior wiring, rotting floors, water-stained ceilings and black mold that gives anyone who stays in the house for more than 15 minutes a headache. A dilapidated shed with mildewed rugs and rusted appliances sits in a backyard covered with runaway vines and moldy leaves.
With rain pouring into the rental house, a bad situation, brewing for weeks between the McCues, school district administrators and school board members, exploded into a major blowup Saturday, Sept. 9.
That Saturday the couples' nine-year-old son woke up wheezing.
Worried and frustrated, the McCues were headed to El Dorado, 21 miles away, to seek medical care for the child. But before leaving Huttig, they stopped at another school-owned rental property that school administrators and board members had indicated could be an alternative to their current rental house.
The McCues wanted answers. They entered the house, which they had not previously seen, and began filming a couple who were cleaning. School Board President Cindy Smith suddenly appeared and indicated to the McCues to stop filming.
The McCues headed to Strong and called 911.
South Arkansas Reckoning contacted Smith about the incident. Smith said she had told Brandye McCue on Friday, Sept. 8, that they did not want the McCues in the house until it was cleaned. But they showed up the next day.
According to Smith: “Saturday morning, I, the people who were cleaning, they came in to clean. A few minutes later here they come. I was across the street because the water wasn't turned on, and I was getting water from across the street. So when I walked back in she got her camera out, she just filming. I say you need to stop filming. I say okay y'all need to leave. I put my hands up. I say okay y'all need to leave the premises, just leave the premises."
Smith said McCue and her husband accused her of threatening them. She denied threatening them.
The couple, along with their son and their dog, Daisy, left. According to the McCues they called 911 and headed to Strong to meet a Union County sheriff deputy at the Dollar General parking lot.
Smith said after the McCues left she went to their rental house to offer to put them in a hotel. They weren't there.
"So anyway as I was leaving I said you know what I said I might need to call our resource officer because they weren't at the house. I was going to go see if they were in Strong. As soon as I looked down at my phone my administrative assistant from the school texted me. She said Mrs. Smith our renters are up in Strong walking the dog. So I goes to Strong. I pull up to where they are and he's ranting and raving about leave us alone, leave us alone. I'm trying to let you know we are trying to get you guys in a hotel. That's when she filmed me talking, talking through the window. I said, ‘We are trying to get you in a hotel so you can get out of the house until we get the other house clean.’”
The McCues accused Smith of blocking them with her vehicle. The McCues gave this video to South Arkansas Reckoning.
Smith eventually moved her car, and the McCues drove to another parking lot where a Union County sheriff deputy met them. The school’s resource officer also showed up along with Smith and witnesses.
The deputies took an incident report from all parties. South Arkansas Reckoning contacted the Union County Sheriff’s Office Friday afternoon in El Dorado and were unable to obtain copies of the reports.
Why Move to the Strong-Huttig School District?
Huttig, with a population of about 448, sits two miles north of the Arkansas-Louisiana state line with a deep history with the timber industry. It’s also the birthplace of civil rights activist Daisy Bates and where Floyd Cramer, the famous pianist, was raised.
The Huttig School District #60 was consolidated in 2004 when new laws were passed under then Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee requiring school districts with less than 350 students to find another district willing to consolidate with them No school was willing to consolidate with Huttig so the Arkansas Board of Education forcibly consolidated them with the Strong School District.
The isolated Strong-Huttig School District is struggling.
Superintendent Amy Sanchez, who is in her first year as the district’s superintendent, told South Arkansas Reckoning that she is aware of the McCues’ situation and praised Brandye McCue. In fact, the school district’s Facebook page recently featured drawings from McCue’s students.
While sitting in the Central Administration Building in Strong, Sanchez said that the school needs an enrollment increase and a lift bus. The school district has about 300 students, and it covers 350 square miles with students from Strong, Huttig and Felsenthal.
The district has desperate needs, so does the McCue family.
McCue needed a teaching job. With a $50,000 yearly salary now given to teachers under Governor Sarah Sanders' LEARNS Act, McCue decided to return to teaching.
While in Alabama with her father, McCue began searching online for jobs in Arkansas where she once lived and taught in various districts.
She applied for many jobs, but the Strong-Huttig School District in Union County quickly contacted her for an interview via Google Meet on July 12.
On July 17 Superintendent Amy Sanchez offered the teaching job to McCue, who had already returned to Arkansas. That day, McCue went to the school to sign paperwork and enroll her son in the district.
That day Crystal Osgood, the district's bookkeeper, according to the text messages provided by McCue told her about "teacher housing" owned by the school. McCue was interested because several leads for housing for her family were dead ends. Her family had no place to live and was staying in a motel in Monticello.
McCue said throughout early August, school administrators showed her and her husband various properties owned by the school district.
They settled on a house in Huttig, the one where they are now camping, and signed a month-to-month rental contract with the school district. McCue paid $700 in cash — $350 security deposit, first month’s rent $300 and a $50 pet deposit — for the single-family home. McCue said the school requested cash.
"It sounded too good to be true," McCue, an art teacher, told South Arkansas Reckoning Saturday afternoon under the house's carport. "And it apparently was."
The school district has attempted to resolve some of the issues by contacting Entergy and others to address problems around the house, but problems are not resolved, according to McCue.
According to McCue, because of the unbearable living conditions, the family has racked up more than $2,000 in hotel bills and McCue has yet to receive a paycheck. That’s why they are now camping in the carport with their furniture in storage and other belongings in the back of their truck. McCue has another worry. She could be fired because the state no longer has a teacher fair dismissal act.
On Saturday night as the sun was setting and mosquitoes were swarming in Huttig, the McCues were preparing to camp another night in their tent because the stench of mold in the house was unbearable.
"I just don't know what to do," McCue said, tears brimming in her eyes. "I want to teach but I can't live like this. We need help."
[Correction: Our original story said that Entergy had solved the exterior problems of the Huttig house. Brandye McCue said Entergy has not solved the problem.]
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