Former Pine Bluff Alderman Jack Foster is alleging that the White Hall School District’s boundaries extend improperly into the Pine Bluff city limits and the Jefferson County Industrial Park, depriving the Dollarway School District of millions of dollars in tax money it should have received. White Hall School District Superintendent Larry Smith said school district boundaries are determined by the state, and that Foster’s allegation appeared to be based on a misunderstanding of the boundary-drawing process.
Foster made the allegation Wednesday last week at a meeting of a panel led by Alderman Steven Mays to study alleged improprieties surrounding the two cities’ shared 71602 ZIP code.
Foster said he obtained a map from the Southeast Arkansas Regional Planning Commission that confirmed the White Hall boundary lines. He said the boundary lines intrude into an area that should be the Dollarway School District in Pine Bluff. Foster said he also obtained tax records from the Jefferson County Collector’s Office. He said the records show that the White Hall School District has received more than $5 million in tax revenue from the areas in question since 2007, and approximately $600,000 in 2016. Foster supplied The Commercial with copies of the documents.
The state Board of Education declared the Dollarway School in academic distress in 2010. It dissolved the school board in December 2015, and the state took over the school district with former Arkansas River Education Service Cooperative Director Barbara Warren named superintendent. In 2016 the board voted to declare the district in fiscal distress as well. Foster said he has asked Arkansas Commissioner of Education Johnny Key, who currently oversees the school district, to petition the state Board of Education to redraw the lines.
“Somebody needs to explain to me how is it we’ve got a school district in Pine Bluff, in fiscal distress, and money from Pine Bluff that should be going to the school district, is going to White Hall,” Foster said.
Smith said the White Hall School District does extend into the City of Pine Bluff, and that the map Foster acquired is likely accurate. However, he said that does not mean people in White Hall had control over the boundary-drawing process.
“School districts don’t determine their boundaries,” Smith said. “The State of Arkansas does that. And we don’t collect taxes.”
Smith, who is stepping down as superintendent June 30 after 10 years in the position, said the boundaries of the White Hall School District have not changed during his tenure. Smith said he believed the boundaries for the White Hall School District were drawn in 1950, shortly after Redfield was annexed into the district in 1948. Smith added that the Regional Planning Commission, which was established in 1964, did not have any affiliation with the school district. He said he has asked the legal services department at the state Department of Education for a copy of the map, which he expected to receive within a day.
A representative from the legal services department did not respond to The Commercial’s request for comment Wednesday. White Hall School District Board of Education Chairman Dr. Raymond Jones and Warren also did not return emails and phone calls seeking comment.
At the meeting last week, Pine Bluff Alderman Bruce Lockett noted that the White Hall School District also includes Redfield, while the Pine Bluff School District includes Altheimer, which is outside its city limits.
“How are you going to petition this on the basis of city boundaries?” Lockett asked Foster.
Larry Reynolds, director of the Southeast Arkansas Regional Planning Commission, said school district boundaries were set by state laws in the early 1900s. They have changed because of annexations, he said, so White Hall had to absorb landmass. Pine Bluff also absorbed other school districts as the city grew beyond its school district’s boundaries, he said.
“It wasn’t like, White Hall sat there and said, ‘Let’s go into Pine Bluff and get more property,’” Reynolds said.