Small-Town School Boards and Big-Time Economics
A glance into the StrongHolds school boards have in rural Arkansas
School boards may appear boring to most people.
You may think these elected officials – no, they are not volunteers – vote on hiring a superintendent, glance at a district's test scores and receive updates on wins and losses for the football team.
They do a lot more.
A school board hires and fires all staff based on the superintendent's recommendations, approve all curriculum including the social issues you don’t want your kids to see, influences property values, votes to buy and sell school-owned properties, decides on everything from what company cleans the classrooms, which construction companies get your tax dollars, and can even block your child from school choice.
With such power and money, corruption can occur just like in any major corporation.
In 2001, the Arkansas legislature passed Act 1599 to prevent conflicts of interest – directly or indirectly – in your school district. In 2005, the legislature passed Act 1381.
Act 1599 “establishes ethical guidelines and prohibitions for local school board members, educational administrators, and employees of any public educational entity in Arkansas.”
That law is designed to prevent your tax dollars from going to district employees, administrators and even school boards to make a profit without you the taxpayer knowing.
For example, a teacher makes gourmet cupcakes. If those cupcakes are purchased by the school for an event then that teacher has to disclose to the financial interest to the Department of Education under Act 1599.
The potential conflict of interest must be disclosed yearly even if the teacher never sells a cupcake to the district.
Superintendents must follow these same rules.
A superintendent or a family member of the superintendent's cannot profit from the school district without disclosing it to the state.
Let's say the superintendent and her family offer karaoke services on the weekends for weddings. She must disclose this side business in case the school wants to hire her or a family member to DJ a school dance.
The same goes for school board members who are prohibited from profiting from the district they serve.
Don't think it happens? Think again.
In 2006, a prosecuting attorney in the Helena-West Helena school district charged a board president with a felony charge for an ethics violation under Act 1599.
"A grand jury indictment, issued in May 2006, accused Simes during 2003 and 2004 of 'willfully and knowingly' participating in causing a contract for services to be entered into between radio station KCLT and the district when he was a school board member knowing that he was directly or indirectly interested in the contract valued at more than $5000," according to a 2006 newspaper article.
Another example: The Clarendon School District sold the Holly Grove high school property to the city of Holly Grove in 2005.
A Clarendon school board member was the mayor of Holly Grove. The school superintendent had no explanation why the school board didn't obtain an okay from the Arkansas Department of Education to sell the property. Clarendon's school board president at the time said she didn't know whether the department's approval was required for the transaction although the legislative auditor said it was.
Although these two incidents happened years ago, the law has not changed and neither has shady shenanigans.
All 1599 disclosures are a permanent record, and school employees or board members who have even an inkling that they could profit – directly or indirectly – must file disclosure forms every year to the Arkansas Department of Education.
What about nepotism?
A look through a school employee directory shows people working at the school with the same last names. That's especially true in small towns where everyone is seemingly related to each other either by blood or marriage.
But Arkansas law states school boards should proceed with caution when hiring.
For example, a board member wants to hire her son-in-law as a math teacher or sister as an assistant basketball coach.
If that employment contract exceeds $5,000 they must seek an exemption through the Department of Education Commissioner, who is currently Jacob Oliva, and show “unusual and limited circumstances.”
School districts are big business in Arkansas.
Superintendents call themselves the CEOs of the schools. They answer to the board. Board members have not in the past been term limited, and many have served on boards for decades. They wield power from voting on multi-million dollar construction contracts to making critical decisions in a kid's life.
At a recent school board meeting in the Cleveland County School District, a student requested a transfer to another school to play soccer, a sport not offered at the student's current school. The board voted 6-1 to deny the student to leave to play soccer.
Although no reason was given for the vote, every time a school loses a student to another district it also loses thousands of dollars. In that way, every student counts. Literally. Students are pawns in a school's wheeling and dealing.
In this era of COVID-19 and more threats of mandates, rampant inflation and a shaky economy, school boards are a focus of increased scrutiny because they are spending your federal, state and local tax dollars.
For instance, the Sheridan School District's annual budget is around $48 million while the city of Sheridan receives around $11 million in revenues for spending. That's right. The school has a much bigger budget than a town.
And a school board manages all of those millions.
While clearly Arkansas law requires operating processes and disclosures for school districts, sometimes board members run afoul.
The school board is picking the winners and losers of their communities.
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