The Pine Bluff School Board did not allow a public comment session Tuesday during its regular board meeting despite posting a sign on the front door of the district offices that explains the process about how to sign up for them. Pine Bluff School District employee Jewelette Courtney represents the Classified Personnel Policies Committee and asked board President Henry Dabner what the guidelines are for public comment. An estimated 80 people attended the meeting, including two law enforcement officers.

A paper announcement of the meeting posted to the district doors at 512 S. Pine Street said that “all requests to be on the school board agenda must be in writing and received by the superintendent ten business days before board meetings.”

Courtney referred to that paper when asking board members why comments weren’t being allowed.

“I’ve had people come to me just now asking why they could not talk at this meeting when they put it in the time frame that is on the door,” Courtney said. “Can you answer?”

Dabner responded, “We were asked by the state department don’t do public comments at this time.”

Many people in the audience loudly voiced their disapproval at Dabner’s response. Dabner said that the board has not allowed public comment for years, which prompted people to voice their disbelief. Reached Wednesday, Arkansas Department of Education spokeswoman Kim Friedman said local school boards set their own policies and procedures regarding public comment.

“The Arkansas Department of Education and State Board of Education did not tell the Pine Bluff School Board it could not accept public comment and would never tell a local board it cannot accept public comment,” Friedman said via email.

Community member Jack Foster said he sent a fax to the district 14 days before the meeting asking to speak during public comment but wasn’t allowed to. School boards are not mandated by law to allow segments of a meeting to be used for public comment; however, many do so as a courtesy to patrons who wish to address concerns. Many at Tuesday night’s meeting said they had signed up to speak on issues ranging from retirement benefits to the proposal to hire a strategic school improvement officer.

Courtney made a request to Superintendent Michael Robinson and the board proposing that the “policies for the classified personnel remain as is with changes and/or additions to be made as needed on a case by case basis.”

In other news, Jackson told Robinson that “We were cited for overcrowded classrooms by the state and they warned us that this can’t happen anymore because they would take our accreditation. So, I need to know, what is in place to make sure this doesn’t happen anymore or who dropped the ball?”

Robinson responded that he has met with Bradley to discuss class sizes in the upcoming 2017-2018 school year.

“In special education, we already knew what our situation was because we did not have enough special education teachers,” Robinson said. “When it came to kindergarten, we had more kindergarten students and we would have had to hire more kindergarten teachers. We did look for them. But if you do not have additional teachers to teach kindergarten, then you are going to have that overage. So this year we did put in a lot so we are not able to go over the state requirement. … We’re looking at the numbers this year for kindergarten to make sure that we can keep those class sizes as low as possible but also so we can make sure we have enough teachers in kindergarten.”

Jackson asked Robinson if the kindergarten classes had paraprofessionals, and Robinson said yes. Jackson asked Robinson in that case, why were they cited? Robinson said that even with paraprofessionals, there cannot be more than a certain number of students per classroom.

“We do not have enough teachers to suffice for those kids, we are going to have a finding,” Robinson said.

Jackson responded that the state is telling the district they cannot have findings. Robinson acknowledged that point and said he needs to hire five or six special education teachers. He said he is looking to solve this predicament.

“It is not just a shortage in Pine Bluff,” Robinson said. “It’s a national shortage of teachers.”

In other news, Pine Bluff School District Executive Director of Operations Booker Franklin discussed a request for proposals seeking companies to cut grass at the following district properties: Carver, First Ward, Gabe Meyer, Indiana Street, Lakeside, Oak Park, Sam Taylor, Sixth Avenue and Southeast. He provided documents showing that Southern Style Services and TLG Lawn Services submitted the most responsible bids. Board members Andrea Roaf-Little, Herman Horace, Gwendolyn Woods, Harold Jackson and Dabner voted to hire those companies to cut grass.

In district web site news, Jackson told Robinson that he did not find past meeting minutes posted to the district web site. Robinson said that Mr. Lewis is building a new district web site on his own time to save the district about $7,000 to go with a Google site.

“We are in the process right now of taking the stuff from the old site and moving it to the new site,” Robinson said. “There will be a section on the new site where all the board minutes will be there in a Google doc form.”

In other news, the board has two vacant seats: Phyllis Wilkins has resigned from the Zone 2 seat.

“I resigned due to personal and family reasons and I have served for five years,” Wilkins said Wednesday. “I decided it was in my best interest to resign. I wish the children and staff the best and our new superintendent Dr. Robinson. It was an honor to serve for five years.”

Stephen Bronskill resigned from a Zone 5 seat last month and moved to California.

The board met in executive session for about 20 minutes to consider filling these two vacancies. Upon returning to the meeting, Dabner said the board tabled that matter to a special called meeting at 5 p.m. Tuesday, July 25.

“You can bring your sealed resumes with a cover letter to the superintendent’s office,” Dabner said.

On the subject of custodians, Robinson said that the board approved a contract with a custodial company.

“Everybody who wanted a job has one,” Robinson said. “All they had to do was qualify and pass a drug test. If they passed that and the background check, they were good to go. They were offered a position.”