Pine Bluff Superintendent Jeremy Owoh will now have an easier time firing teachers who are deemed poor performers in the district thanks to a Thursday vote by the Arkansas Board of Education.


The board voted 8-1 to waive the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act and the Public School Employee Fair Hearing Act for the district.


Johnny Key, education commissioner, had requested the waiver after the state took over the Pine Bluff School District in September. At that time, the local board of education and superintendent were removed.


“We must embrace a moral urgency … to students whose education needs have not been served by past policies, practices and adult actions,” Key told the panel before a daylong hearing on the waiver requests.


Before that, the district was found to be in fiscal distress by the state. Academic troubles are also plaguing the district. The state board can waive the protection laws if a district is classified as being in need of intensive support/Level 5. The PBSD was classified as Level 5 earlier this year.


Five of its schools received F grades in the most recent round of state reports, while Jack Robey Middle School received a D grade for the second year in a row.


“It’s definitely not where we would like to be, but it gives us the opportunity to focus our efforts in all regards,” Owoh said in a previous interview. “As we move forward, we’ll do so in planning, making sure that we’re focusing on the areas that’s really going to impact our students and their learning. It will also help us focus the professional [growth plans] of our teachers, staff and administrators… We can really streamline those and better focus those on the needs of the students throughout the district.”


A message left for Owoh after Thursday’s State Board ruling was not returned.


Each of the district’s six schools will be required to develop a support plan to improve its academic performance, Owoh said. Students, parents, teachers, administrators and other staff will develop the support plans. Those support plans will then be used to develop a district-wide support plan. Work on developing the plans will begin within the next week or so, he said.


Due to the low scores, Owoh said he has been notified that Pine Bluff schools have been identified as in need of comprehensive support and improvement. The Department of Education will put a required monitoring program in place for each school.


In order to escape that designation, each school will be required to show continuous improvement in its federal Every Student Succeeds Act score. While all but Jack Robey received F’s, each school can still show improvement even if they get the same letter grade next year as long as their numerical ESSA score – for instance, 57 – is higher than its numerical score from the year before.


In November, Owoh touched on overstaffing during a presentation to the State Board, saying that “all areas” of the district are suffering from it.


“We have 3,200 students enrolled in the district, and we have a lot of personnel at the district level,” he said. “We want to streamline the district personnel as well as look at the essential key personnel members who we need for support in schools. We have classes K-12 with three students, five students, nine students. More of them than classes with 20-to-25 students. We’ve been able to shift some staff members this week, but we are looking to condense the number of schools and staff members and personnel outside the school walls as well.”


LITTLE ROCK SCHOOL DISTRICT


Members of the audience shouted “shame on you” at the board after it approved the same waiver for Little Rock’s district, which has been under state control since 2015. The panel approved the waiver after a scaled-back plan to apply it only to teachers in Little Rock schools that the state has rated “D” or “F” failed to move forward.


“You are declaring, essentially, war on the people you need to solve these problems,” Democratic state Sen. Will Bond told the panel before the vote.


The Little Rock district and its teachers union last month agreed to a contract after weeks of tense negotiations. The contract included language that said the education department could petition the state for a waiver for poor performing schools. It also included a due-process clause that said no disciplinary action can be taken against an employee without “just cause.”