“We have alleviated the conditions that put us in fiscal distress,” Dollarway Superintendent Barbara Warren said. “The first was the number of audit findings. The second factor was our declining fund balances. We have not had declining fund balances from 2015-2016 or 2016-2017. We have maintained our ending balance and have not declined.”

THE ISSUE: The Dollarway School District. THE IMPACT: The Dollarway School District is showing improvements after years of struggling. Providing a quality education for students in one of the poorest area of the state is the top goal for school administrators.

Dollarway School District Superintendent Barbara Warren gave a state of the district address last week, saying the district has eradicated the conditions that placed it in fiscal distress.

Warren commended district business manager Dennis Johnson and his colleagues for their work in improving Dollarway’s finances.

“The reasons why we were in fiscal distress have gone away,” Warren said. “The two reasons were associated with the district (previously) having declining balances. We have not had declining balances. We ended this past year in a position to transfer $374,000 into the building fund. That’s a very positive thing for us. When you’re losing students, you’ve got to make changes. Losing students means you’re losing revenue.”

Warren said an Arkansas Legislative auditor did not show any material findings in an audit of Dollarway in the 2016-2017 fiscal year. This auditor has issued a preliminary report, which the Legislative Joint Auditing Committee will review.

Warren said the district had four material findings in 2015-2016 and 19 material findings in 2014-2015.

“We have alleviated the conditions that put us in fiscal distress,” Warren said. “The first was the number of audit findings. The second factor was our declining fund balances. We have not had declining fund balances from 2015-2016 or 2016-2017. We have maintained our ending balance and have not declined.”

Arkansas Department of Education spokeswoman Kim Friedman said that a petition by ADE or the Dollarway School District has not been presented to the Arkansas Board of Education for any release of Dollarway from fiscal distress. Therefore, the Dollarway School District is continuing to operate under the approved fiscal distress plan.

“While improvement is continuing, the district has not yet met all requirements related to the fiscal distress plan,” Friedman said via email.

Asked to characterize Warren regarding her leadership in Dollarway, Friedman responded that “Warren has made great strides to make district improvements and works closely with ADE and the Office of Coordinated Support and Service.”

Warren said she wants parents to prioritize their children’s education. She highlighted the district’s abbreviated mission statement: to collaborate, educate and graduate the whole child. Warren said educators know that parental involvement makes a huge difference in the education of their children.

“We have got to pay our teachers more,” Warren said. “People want to work for us. We’ve been able to recruit people and then they go down the street and work for $5,000 more. That is one of the biggest keys to attract and retain not just staff but students and families.”

About 35 people attended the meeting Tuesday night at Robert F. Morehead Middle School, a vast increase from a similar meeting held several weeks ago at which fewer than 15 were present. Warren said she will post her report to the district web site. She recognized many principals and other district employees who were present, including band teacher Vickie Liddell, who is the Dollarway Teacher of the Year.

“We are proud of her,” Warren said. “She represents the district well.”

A history of issues

The Dollarway School District has been monitored by the Arkansas Department of Education since December 2015 when it dissolved the Dollarway School Board of Directors due to a prolonged period of academic problems and the firings of superintendents Bobby Acklin and Patsy Hughey. Warren was appointed superintendent in December 2015 after having previously been the director of the Arkansas River Education Service Cooperative.

The district enrolled 985 students this fall, which is a decline from last fall’s 1,112 students. Many students have transferred to other districts through school choice, Warren said.

“Our summer decline is normally huge,” Warren said.

On the subject of accreditation, Warren said that James Matthews Elementary School is on probationary status because one kindergarten class had too many students last academic year.

“We had paras who assisted last year but we really needed one more teacher,” Warren said. “We have rectified that. We have five kindergarten classrooms now.”

Assistant Superintendent Melvin Bryant discussed facilities at the Tuesday meeting. He said district buildings have been painted, the Dollarway High School football field has been refurbished, and that James Matthews Elementary School received a new driveway to allow school buses to enter and to lessen motor vehicle congestion.

On the subject of food services, Bryant said that Robert F. Morehead Middle School received new handicapped-accessible lunchroom tables. Bryant said the state evaluated the district’s facilities and the district passed this assessment.

“They asked us to be more proactive in preventive maintenance,” Bryant said. “Everything else was flying colors.”

Bryant also discussed the district’s bus routes.

“Transportation continues to be a problem because of drivers,” Bryant said. “We are searching for bus drivers.”

Warren elaborated on the district’s finances.

“We have been working to be much better stewards,” Warren said. “Stewardship is not just about the financial part. It is also about taking care of what you have and not making choices to purchase things that you already have.”

Dollarway school improvement specialist Dee Davis said her goal is for students to achieve one year of academic growth within one academic year.

She showed a slide that depicted a Pine Bluff Commercial newspaper with her vision of a story headlined “Dollarway School District Students Exceed Science and Math Readiness Benchmarks.”

“We want you to know we are growing kids,” Davis said. “There will come a day when this is what you will see in the paper.”

Because Dollarway is under state authority, all ADE divisions provide assistance regarding finances, academics and facilities, Friedman said. The Office of Coordinated Support and Service coordinates this support, she said. The ADE School Improvement Unit and Office of Coordinated Support and Service work with the district on a weekly basis, Friedman said. Academic quarterly reports are presented to the Arkansas Board of Education, she said.

Because Dollarway School District is still under fiscal distress classification, the district is required to submit debt requests for all nonrecurring purchases, she said.