In Honor of School Board Recognition Month
Arkansas Legislature sends strong message to school board members in Act 883
Before January rolls into February, we want to acknowledge that January is Arkansas School Board Member Recognition Month.
Gov. Sarah Sanders issued a proclamation to recognize school boards. The Arkansas School Boards Association website offered ideas on how to show appreciation even giving the month two hashtags: #SchoolBoardRecognitionMonth and #celebrateARschoolboards.
Arkansas superintendents celebrated their board members at meetings and in social media posts. Some boards even received gifts for their service like cutting boards, thank you cards made by students and printed proclamations from mayors.
South Arkansas Reckoning watched all of this closely because we investigate and write frequently about school boards.
Let's face it. School board meetings sound boring, and it appears being a member is the lowest political office a person can hold. That’s not accurate.
We can tell you in one word why you should tune in to your school board: Money. More specifically two words: Your money.
School boards influence property taxes. The amount you pay each year is determined by the millage in your district. Who decides that rate? The school board. Once it's on the ballot you vote for or against a tax increase. Most people don't even turn out for millage elections yet wonder why their taxes increase.
Are School Board Members Politicians?
School board members are elected like mayors, state representatives and the governor. Yes, they are elected officials, not volunteers.
The Arkansas School Boards Association states:
“The school board sets the direction of the district, ensures that it is properly administered, establishes policy, and represents the education interests of the community. The superintendent is the district's chief executive officer (CEO) who carries out policy and day-to-day administration of the schools.”
Note: The superintendent answers to the board. The board hires and fires the superintendent. In recent years, when school boards and superintendents disagree, they each lawyer up and some use a mutual termination agreement to part ways.
If you read Arkansas Education Secretary Jacob Oliva's resolution, it states that boards “tirelessly give their time, energy, and talent in service to the public education system without payment.”
That wording gives the impression that school board members are volunteers. Are they?
Arkansas school board members file to run for office at their county courthouse. They also have to file a statement of financial interest like all other politicians. These documents disclose jobs, investments and other financial information.
They campaign just like any other politician does if they have an opponent — knocking on doors, putting up campaign signs and holding meet-and-greets. Many times board members don't have an opponent, and some school board members sit on the board for decades – literally.
Look at Florida
Florida has seen several vacancies in local governments recently across the state.
Last year, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law a bill that term limits school board members from 12 years to eight.
The Florida legislature also created more stringent ethics and disclosures for government officials. According to the Florida Commission on Ethics:
“Financial disclosure is required of public officials and employees because it enables the public to evaluate potential conflicts of interests, deters corruption, and increases public confidence in government.”
Elected officials have started resigning from office.
It's worth noting prior to Education Secretary Oliva arriving in Arkansas, he served as a senior chancellor at the Florida Department of Education.
[Our original story omitted that Florida school board members receive payment for their service. Arkansas school members do not.]
Arkansas Legislators Send a Message
In the 2023 regular session of Arkansas’ legislature, a bill was passed and signed into law by Sanders that became Act 883. That act requires all school board members to take the following oath of office.
“I, [your school board member], do hereby solemnly swear or affirm, that I will not be interested, directly or indirectly, in any contract made by the district of which I am a director, except as permitted by state law, that I shall abide by the ethical guidelines and prohibitions under 6-24-101 et seq., and that I will faithfully discharge the duties as school director in [your] School District upon which I am about to enter.”
Act 883 further requires that the board members’ certification of the administration of the oath be given to the county clerk by the close of business on the date the oath is given.
Act 883 also requires the county clerk to give the board member a copy of Arkansas Code Title 6, Chapter 24, Section 101-119, which is the ethical guidelines and prohibitions for board members. It also makes a board member sign an acknowledgement that he or she received a copy of the code.
Arkansas Code 6-24-115 states:
“Any board member, administrator, employee, or nonemployee who shall knowingly violate the provisions of this chapter shall be guilty of a felony.
(2) In addition, the court may fine the violator in any sum not to exceed the greater of ten thousand dollars ($10,000) or double the dollar amounts involved in the transactions, sentence the violator to prison for not more than five (5) years, or impose both a fine and imprisonment.”
Act 883 further explains that the following day the county clerk notify the superintendent that the board member has been administered the oath and the clerk has accepted the certification and will send a copy to the school district central office within five days.
This new law goes into effect on May 1.
Why did the legislature make these changes? Will Arkansas see a mass exodus of school board members after May 1?
As South Arkansas Reckoning continues to investigate tips across the state, we also feel that reporting changes to current law is vital to help bring awareness to the local level. After all, every Arkansan is required to assess their real property by May 31 every year and pay property tax by Oct.15 or face penalties.
Many Arkansans are still unaware that the majority of those taxes collected each year goes directly to the school district where they live.
If you have ever attended a school board meeting you may be confused about the members’ roles in your local schools and communities. You may also be unaware of the millions of dollars controlled by a school board.
Those millions are your millions.
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