The Pine Bluff School Board voted 7-0 Tuesday to approve the superintendent’s recommendation to close one building and repurpose another building to save money.
Pine Bluff Superintendent Michael Robinson proposed closing the First Ward Alternative School building and repurposing Belair Middle School. Robinson said such moves would yield savings of $433,192 by 2017-2018, about $860,000 by 2018-2019, and about $1,300,000 by 2019-2020.
Robinson said Belair Middle School fifth-graders would move to W.T. Cheney Elementary School, Broadmoor Elementary School, and 34th Avenue Elementary School, while sixth-graders would move to Jack Robey Junior High School. Robinson said that the Belair building would house the gifted and talented programs and the Alternative Learning Center.
Board members Henry Dabner, Herman Horace, Phyllis Wilkins, Stephen Bronskill, Andrea Roaf-Little, Harold Jackson and Gwendolyn Woods approved the request.
These developments coincide with the district losing students in conjunction with the community of Pine Bluff losing population. Robinson said the district enrolled 4,701 students in 2012 and currently enrolls about 4,100 students. He said he expects enrollment to drop to 3,238 by 2020 and 2,968 in 2025-2026.
Pine Bluff’s population has dropped from around 55,000 residents in 2000 to around 45,000 today.
“With this declining enrollment, we receive funds and are waiting to see what the legislators will do relative to whether we will lose that money,” Robinson, who has a doctorate in educational leadership, said. “We are looking at [losing nearly] $1 million. If we lose that, we are going to have to make some differences in how we conduct our financial business.”
The district spends about $11,868 to educate each student; the state pays $6,700 and the remainder comes from local sources. Robinson said the state provided about $804,000 in declining enrollment funds this year. Looking to next year, the district is at risk of not receiving $804,000 in declining enrollment funds, $188,000 in Title One funds, $30,000 in Title Two funds, and $5,700 in special education, Robinson said.
Robinson said the district will be revamping its methods of contracting with substitute teachers to save money.
Robinson said Southwood Elementary School will enroll kindergartners and first graders, and Pine Bluff High School will enroll ninth- to-12th-graders. Southwood will be a literacy center, because literacy is a gateway to education, school officials have said.
“I want people to understand that in the Pine Bluff School District, literacy is a problem,” Robinson said. “We can’t pretend as though it does not exist because it is a very salient point. Many of our scholars in high school are struggling because of their readability levels. I want to focus on literacy at the earliest stages. … Children should be mastering 2,500 words per year.”
As a former English teacher, Robinson said he has witnessed many students enter the classroom unprepared to learn.
“The way we think is the way we speak and articulate in our vernacular,” Robinson said. “That is also the way we write and that is also the way we communicate.”
Robinson said he will work with Southwood teachers to ensure their students read by early elementary school. To underscore their struggles, Robinson said that Pine Bluff third-graders met reading grade level expectations at a rate of only 13.6 percent on the 2016 Aspire.
About 15.4 percent of ninth-graders and 9.6 percent of tenth-graders were reading at grade level.
“We have to do something different with literacy if we expect to get different results,” Robinson said.
Robinson cited former President Barack Obama: “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for and we are the change that we seek.”
Board member Jackson asked Robinson if the number of teachers will be reduced. Robinson said he expects some teachers to retire or resign as they normally would, adding that the Belair teachers will be moved along with their students.
In other news, Pine Bluff Department of Economic and Community Development director Larry Matthews discussed the Safe Routes to School project to build sidewalks around Southwood Elementary School through a grant of $80,000. Matthews requested the board approve a construction easement to allow the construction to begin in summer 2017. The board voted 7-0 to approve the easement.
In personnel news, the board approved the resignation of technology technician Charles W. Johnston effective March 17 and the retirement of art teacher Virginia Hymes effective June 6.