The state-appointed superintendent of the Pine Bluff School District appeared at his first public event on Tuesday at a Delta Sigma Lambda Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc. welcome reception held at the Strachota Senior Citizen Center.
Jeremy Owoh, a now former Arkansas Department of Education assistant commissioner, was appointed to the job by Arkansas Education Commissioner Johnny Key during a September meeting of the state Board of Education. The state board removed Monica McMurry, the former interim superintendent of the school district, and dissolved the district’s school board.
The state board declared the district was fiscally distressed and unlikely to have enough money to operate by the end of the school year. Owoh, who’s been an assistant superintendent for the Jacksonville/North Pulaski School District, said he’s excited about the opportunity.
Pine Bluff joins the Dollarway, Earle and Little Rock school districts as being under state control.
University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff Chancellor Laurence B. Alexander introduced Owoh at Tuesday’s event, saying that his fraternity brother will “do great things” at the Pine Bluff School District.
“He is going to bring the school district to new heights,” Alexander said. “Education is the path to advance the youth of our community. We must cultivate a new generation of leaders to carry the torch for the future of Pine Bluff. This is a new era.”
After being joined by his wife, Katrina, and son, Jackson, on stage for introductions to the community, Owoh spoke briefly but to the point about the challenges facing the Pine Bluff School District. He announced that at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 23, the state of the district meeting will be held.
“We will cover our current status of fiscal distress and how we are going to quickly get out of that designation, but also how we are going to address our academic concerns and also our facility concerns,” Owoh said.
Making sure the district has the “right personnel in the right location (and) that they are doing the right job for our students on a daily basis” is also key, he said.
“We believe our students here really deserve the best,” Owoh added. “You can hold me accountable because I want to make sure our students — all students — succeed. All means all — not 98 percent, not 99.5 percent. We’re going to make sure we meet the needs and provide them with the resources they need to matriculate either to a two-year college or a four-year college or straight into a job.
“It’s important for our students to understand that they have opportunities. It’s imperative (that) we ensure they know about those opportunities, then we must provide them with the skills and the capacity to meet those demands. They need to be prepared. That’s what you can expect from me.”
According to Ark. Code Ann. 6-20-1907, a school district identified as being in fiscal distress may not incur any debt without prior written approval by the Education Department. “Any debt” includes any employment contract, vendor contract, lease, loan, purchase, or any other obligation that will increase the district’s financial obligations, accounts payable, or its liabilities. The PBSD is required to obtain this prior written approval from the department.
After news broke that the state would be taking over the PBSD, many parents and patrons of the district questioned what exactly a takeover means.
For one, day-to-day school operations will continue as normal, meaning all classes will be held as scheduled, and all school activities will meet. Owoh will be required to issue ongoing reports to the state about progress that’s being made to help the district become fiscally sound again.
The state will act as the district’s board of directors until such time as the State Board of Education rules that the district can once again function properly under local control. At that time, school board elections will take place, and residents of the district will vote for a new board.
The district will have available to it any state resources it needs to help it return to local control, according to state education officials.
Owoh also urged the community, especially parents, to attend the state of the district meeting so that they can stay informed about current news involving PBSD.
“Join us,” he said. “One person cannot do it. I cannot do it by myself. We need our community support. We need our parents to be engaged. We need you there at our state of the district address. It’s going to take a partnership, not just to get out of fiscal distress, but to ensure that all of our students — remember all means all — it will take all of us, working shoulder to shoulder, elbow to elbow, ensuring that all of our students are receiving the very best educational opportunities.”