Seven Dollarway School District families wanted to transfer their children to another district in accordance with an Arkansas school choice law but cannot because the board of directors voted to be exempt from the law.

Seven Dollarway School District families wanted to transfer their children to another district in accordance with an Arkansas school choice law but cannot because the board of directors voted to be exempt from the law.

No parents from another district wanted to transfer their children into Dollarway.

Dollarway parent Annie Bryant has two children at James Matthews Elementary School, one granddaughter at James Matthews Elementary School, and one niece at Dollarway High School. She is also president of the Dollarway Parent Teacher Organization.

"I am very upset that Dollarway did the exemption because they did not solicit input from parents," Bryant said. "They did not consider the parents. As a parent in the district and as someone who grew up here, it felt like they sentenced us to another year of inadequate education."

Bryant said 98 percent of Dollarway students receive reduced or free lunch. This is a reflection that people do not have money, she said.

"The majority of us cannot afford private school or move to another town," Bryant said. "They have taken away our options. We are trapped in Dollarway subject to a board that does not appear to value our thoughts. I find it horrible."

Dollarway parent Anthony Anderson opposes the board opting out of the school choice law. Anderson has a son at Townsend Park Elementary School and a daughter at James Matthews Elementary School. He said he has been trying to transfer his son into White Hall. He drives through several miles of White Hall District to get from his house to Townsend Park Elementary.

"I have been looking to transfer him since the Freedom of Choice Act in 2012 or 2013," Anderson said. "Dollarway keeps opting out because of segregation lawsuits."

"I feel that the act is depriving my son of a quality education," Anderson said. "I have brought my concerns to the Dollarway School District. It goes in one ear and out another year."

Dollarway Interim Superintendent Patsy Hughey said she is aware of parents who are frustrated because she has spoken with them. She said that the board is acting within the law. Asked if there can be any exceptions, she said "No, we cannot because they have tightened that law."

"Are we where we need to be academically? No. But we are heading in the right direction," Hughey said. "We are not blaming parents or teachers. We have to hold each other accountable: parents, students, board members, administrators and the superintendent. We follow a chain of command. Everyone is responsible."

Bryant said she called White Hall and Watson Chapel and found that they have school choice.

"The Dollarway board has trapped people in a cycle of poverty," Bryant said. "Most research shows an inadequate education leads to an inadequate ability to care for oneself. This correlates to crime. They do not give people a voice, do not allow people to improve the schools. Teachers and parents feel helpless and hopeless."

Dollarway School Board Secretary Gene Stewart said that money is the rationale for the board vote to be exempt from the law. He said the board is not penalizing parents or making decisions to hurt parents or students.

"[Our vote] is not personal toward anyone," Stewart said. "It is about costs only."

"We will be able to retain those students who live in our boundaries and consequently receive revenue of $6,500 or $6,700 per child will come to our district," Stewart said. "If our students go to another district, the other districts get the money. Dollarway does not have much industry. We have to rely on student enrollment and turnback money from the state."

Jefferson County has four public school districts: Pine Bluff, Dollarway, Watson Chapel and White Hall; two charters in Pine Bluff Lighthouse Academy and Quest Middle School, and one private school in Ridgway Christian School. They are vying for the same money and the same students.

"We are in the Delta. We are a poor community," Stewart said. "School districts operate on the dollar."

Hughey said Dollarway teachers are using academic instructional strategies. These strategies include literacy by design, cognitive-guided instruction, educational consultants in the elementary schools and creating classroom improvement goals. The key is assessing students individually and tracking their progress.

"I am satisfied because we are breaking it down and looking at individual students," Hughey said. "The report card at Townsend Park is a C. How we do we move from a C to a B? This is an ongoing process that takes several months. Our teachers benefit from having an individualized assessment. We intervene with students who do not perform at grade level. This intervention may be short-term or long-term depending on their area of weakness. They can go to the computer lab and we have paraprofessionals."

External providers work with teachers in kindergarten to twelfth grade, Hughey said. Dollarway employs enough teachers and paraprofessionals to provide an education to its students, she said. Dollarway offers a computer lab in each of its four schools.

Hughey wrote a letter to the Arkansas Department of Education Commissioner Johnny Key stating that "Dollarway has been operating under a federal court desegregation order since November 8, 1968, in the ruling handed down from the United States District Court for Eastern Arkansas Case Number PB-67-c-69 and case number Civ. A. No. 3680 in the Extension of Dove versus Parham. The case was titled Dove v. Parham. Accordingly, the Dollarway School District desires to declare an exemption from Act 560 of 2015, the Public School Choice Act of 2015."

Stewart said that Dollarway enrolls about 1,300 students from kindergarten to 12th grade. A retired educator of 31 years, Stewart said the boundaries that separate the public school districts are interwoven. People may live close to one school district building but that does not mean they belong there.

The Dollarway School District extends within 100 yards of White Hall High School, he said.

"Just because our students make poor scores, there may not be another opportunity to transfer to another district," Stewart said. "Those districts may have met their mandates."

"If we submit a budget to the state department, we have to stay within that budget," Stewart said. "Otherwise, we will be in fiscal distress. We stayed within our budget for the previous two years."