The Pine Bluff NAACP Branch conducted an education forum Thursday night to discuss the possibility of consolidating the Dollarway, Watson Chapel and Pine Bluff school districts.

An overflow crowd packed a meeting room at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff’s business incubator building downtown.

Forum organizers said consolidation has the potential to “ensure the continued success of the students, raise student achievement and remove barriers that keep children from having a successful future in the city of Pine Bluff.”

“We must face the fact that our enrollment has decreased, the number of residents in the city has gone down, and we must awaken to the current condition of our children,” said NAACP President Ivan Whitfield as he welcomed guests to the forum. “If I had the power of our state governor, I would declare a state of emergency for our schools right now, because I love our kids.”

Whitfield, who recently retired as Pine Bluff police chief, won the Democratic Primary for the Ward 3 City Council seat on May 22.

Several current and former educators, along with politicians, attended Thursday’s event. Superintendents from each of the city’s three school districts provided their perspectives on consolidating the schools.

“I believe that we need to do what is in the best interest of our community and of our scholars,” said Pine Bluff School District Superintendent Michael Robinson.

“The time is now for us to look at bringing our schools together. Great schools yield great economic development.”

Dollarway School District Superintendent Barbara Warren said she can see the pros and the cons of consolidation.

“We haven’t always put our children first,” Warren said. “We have had personal agendas, and we have had our ideas of what we would like to happen, and sometimes we haven’t had children in the room for the discussion.”

Warren added that decisions need be made on “what type of community we want to be. We not only need to make changes in our schools, but we need to make changes in the way we are living our lives and what we are putting before our children.”

She mentioned that debt may be an issue with consolidating, but “if the community comes together and make it happen, it can certainly happen.”

“I’m an advocate for kids, and all kids deserve better,” said Watson Chapel School District Superintendent Connie Hathorn, who is retiring in a few days. “We have to make a decision on whether we want to educate our kids, and stop making excuses about why kids can’t learn.”

Hathorn emphasized that building relationships with students is essential in education as students are at school seven hours per day, 35 hours per week.

“Consolidation will work if you want it to work, but you need to have the right policies, procedures and people in place,” he said. “If we had money and resources to put things in place for our students, those kids would learn.”

Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington shared her perspective on the issue at Thursday’s meeting.

“I don’t think it would be a bad idea to consolidate not only Pine Bluff schools, but all schools in Jefferson County,” Washington said, adding that consolidating Pine Bluff schools would bring everyone together, reduce functions at the administration level and lead to more money that can be used for the children.

“Having an aligned curriculum across the district is very important in making sure that all kids in Pine Bluff have the same quality of education,” Washington said.

She went on to say that high-quality staff development across all schools will ensure that all kids learn.

“The goal is to have a high education standard for our children so that they can go anywhere and succeed,” she said.

Washington said that education is a major determining factor for businesses deciding whether they will establish a company in a city.

“If the schools are failing, they are not coming,” she said. “It is critical that we all come together, stand together, and make things work for the betterment of our children.”

Ryan Watley, CEO of Go Forward Pine Bluff, discussed efforts being made by the organization to help improve the local education system.

“Of our four pillars, education is the most important initiative, but it’s our most difficult task to address,” he said.

Watley said that GFPB has formed an education alliance consisting of many educators and community leaders who are well-invested in the conversation about education. He said the alliance focuses on leadership within schools, education and curriculum and accountability from the students, parents, leadership, etc.

“The challenge that we face right now in GFPB is that we have to impact the next generation to where they are vested, quality citizens, in which they are prepared for through education,” Watley said.

He offered to partner with the NAACP and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff to conduct a study of the feasibility of consolidating the schools. He said that the organization’s private dollars were collected, in part, to be invested in education.

“We need commitment to move the needle, and GFPB is committed to moving the needle,” Watley said.

State Representative Vivian Flowers was also at the meeting, saying that she agrees “that we should look at consolidating from a county-wide perspective. Whatever we do, it is incredibly important that we focus on the education of our circle. This needs to be looked at with an end objective to improve the quality of education for our kids.”

She added that improving the education of students cannot be discussed without acknowledging “how we failed them. Whatever is happening with our kids is because of the adults, whether it be parents, teachers, administrators, community leaders, or elected officials.”

Flowers went on to say that in order for children to have excellent grades, there needs to be excellent teachers, excellent curricula, excellent and safe facilities. She also expressed that technology and the quality of life are also important factors affecting education.

Representative Ken Ferguson said, “I don’t know if consolidation is the answer, but we will do whatever we can to foster and promote the project.”

UAPB Chancellor Emeritus L.A. Davis Jr. said that “we are at a point now where we have an excellent opportunity to make a change. Change is not easy, but it must happen.”

He suggested that a vision be developed, then people with expertise need to come together to achieve the vision. Participation, he said, will be critical.

“There is no excuse for us not to have a first-class secondary school system when we have SEARK and UAPB right here,” Davis said. “If we don’t better the education system, Pine Bluff is going to die.”

Robert Carr, provost and vice chancellor of academic affairs at UAPB, discussed how the education system needs to be fixed in order to have a consistent tax base and attract business.

SEARK President Steven Bloomberg suggested that the conversation be focused on people development instead of economic development because “there is no community without people.”

“I don’t know the answer, but I do know that if we work together, we can make a difference,” Bloomberg said. “Together; united, we succeed. Divided, we fail.”