The Pine Bluff School District Board of Education approved the purchase of academic resources and a key maintenance measure on Tuesday in a detail-packed meeting in the Pine Bluff Administrative Center — a meeting that marked the first for Monica McMurray as the interim superintendent.


McMurray had served as the district’s executive director of learning services for four years before her appointment after former Superintendent Michael Robinson resigned in June.


“There are many moving parts to that department,” McMurray said, noting that she’s accustomed to working with compliance to standards, professional development for teachers, appropriating funds and various other duties relevant to her new post.


“It’s mass orchestration,” she said of the work she’s done.


After Tuesday’s meeting, Board President Herman Horace said there were no updates as of yet about the superintendent search.


McMurray requested the renewal of several learning programs, including GradPoint, a software tool, and Empowering Writers, which she said is a program, with an online component, that helps teachers instruct students in writing.


The board also approved, at McMurray’s request, to purchase services from Superior Success Comprehensive Educational Services to help with the district’s literacy instruction.


“Specific emphasis this year will be on our K-3 phonics program, and this company will help us with that and (also with) effective literacy strategy for teachers for the middle and high-school-grade schools,” McMurray said after the meeting.


She said the cost for the purchased service agreement would be $140,000 for the year.


McMurray said the proposals had been honed down, with no duplication of services, and after the meeting she stressed the importance of alignment.


“All of the teachers in the schools are getting the same type of training,” she said, “and the software programs allow for students to address the need for improvement (and to allow) the students who are achieving to move higher.”


Freedom Schools


In response to a question from board member Henry Dabner, McMurray also addressed the issue of the district’s Freedom Schools program. She noted that the last day of this summer’s Freedom Schools program in the district is on July 27.


“We did, in fact, get approval for a Freedom School grant for next year,” McMurray said. “However, given the nature of the depth training that’s going to be required for Freedom School … and the stringent responsibilities to keep that grant satisfied, we will not be running Freedom School next year during the academic school year. However, there are conversations about using the Freedom School money in our traditional summer school programs.”


Dabner asked if the programming would be in First Ward Alternative School, which had been holding Freedom Schools activities.


“No, sir, it will not be in First Ward,” McMurray said.


Dabner asked, too, about the possibility that the First Ward Alternative School building may be sold.


“That is a conversation we’re going to have to discuss, and ultimately bring before the board,” McMurray said. After the meeting, she said the district may have multiple unused buildings that will be under discussion.


“We’re discussing many options, such as selling, leveling or continued usage through lease agreements,” she said. “But none of those options have been solidified.”


Freedom Schools is a national program and part of the Children’s Defense Fund. According to the CDF website, “By providing summer and after-school reading enrichment for children who might otherwise not have access to books, the CDF Freedom Schools program plays a much-needed role in helping to curb summer learning loss and close achievement gaps.”


Roof repair


The board also approved a maintenance request from Operations Officer Booker Franklin for $28,500 of work by East Harding Construction, focusing on a roof at the W. T. Cheney Elementary School.


Franklin said the structure referred to as the “100-unit building” is the one that needs the work.


“It’s in desperate need of repair,” he said after the meeting.


Franklin said the work is likely to start soon and is expected to be complete before the first day of school.


PBEA statement


Annette Hatchett, Pine Bluff High School building representative for the Pine Bluff Educational Association, addressed the board early in the meeting, noting four areas of concern. She said the concerns came from the “Pine Bluff High School, Pine Bluff Campus Educational Association.”


“The first one is the administrative concern,” she said. “The PBEA desires an administrator with an inclusive educational plan for the benefit of this (Pine Bluff High School) campus, an administrator who desires to build, using constructive evaluations rather than insulting and demeaning comments and/or statements that are unprofessional and offensive.”


After the meeting, Hatchett said that “we’re talking about across-the administrative expectations” and that “this is expected leadership regardless of who is filling a position.”


The statement noted that “tardies and absences are at an unacceptable level from both the staff and the students” and called for “an administrator who helps to create a positive learning environment, one in which students and staff are expected and excited about coming to work for school every day.”


Hatchett said the second item involved school discipline.


“Certified staff wants consistency in enforcing rules, policies, and procedures that should be clearly identified and established consequences at the beginning of the school year,” she said, reading from the statement. “We want students held accountable for their behavior, using the same standards campus-wide and building-to-building. Members want consequences for students who cut class, are habitually late, have behavior problems addressed with the teacher receiving notification of the results.”


Hatchett’s statement described the third item as “teacher concerns,” noting “low morale” as a problem identified by PBEA members.


“Members’ concerns are about the high absentee rate of certified staff, grade inflation and changing grades to a higher level failing rate rather than earned average grades,” she read.


“Members want the verbal, unethical and unprofessional treatment of faculty and staff and undue pressure on teachers to perform administrative duties without compensation to cease. We also want orientation and ongoing year-long support of new teachers to the district. We believe the support would help not only our new staff but also deter a high turnover rate, retirement and resignations of experienced teachers.


“Our last concern,” she read, “grouped together, would be equipment orders not being filled and no known status of the order. Under safety, we want students who report to class … unable to focus tested for drugs for everybody’s safety. We would also like background information on returning students from residential behavioral facilities and what to look for and what to expect from their behavior.


“We want our music department restored. We have award-winning, multi-talented vocal and instrumental students being denied possible scholarships by dismantling the program.”


Hatchett said some of the concerns may have been addressed since the drafting of the statement.


After the meeting, McMurray said the district did not eliminate music programs, but she said that for this coming school year – due to budget cuts – the district has eliminated the position of the core music teacher who had been devoted exclusively to high school courses. Now, she said, the teacher who had been instructing at the elementary level will be teaching both in the high school and in elementary schools. McMurray said the teacher has high-school certification.


“No programs were in jeopardy, but when you have declining enrollment that means a loss of revenue,” McMurray said after the meeting. “You have to make adjustments in order to remain financially solvent. That is an issue for Pine Bluff. We have an obligation to maintain the financial solvency of the district and right now we have not done well with that.”


In other business, the board voted to table a proposal from First Security Beardsley for a renewal of a three-year agreement to continue financial services with the Little Rock-based company.


“The only time we charge a fee to the district is if Pine Bluff issues a bond,” Ray Beardsley told the board. First Security Beardsley is a division of Crews & Associates, Inc., of which Beardsley is vice president.


At the recommendation of Dabner, the board agreed to hear a presentation from the Stephens Inc., also in Little Rock, at the next board meeting, in addition to a presentation from First Security Beardsley, before deciding upon an agreement.


“Last year we did say we would allow the Stephens group to come in and present their proposal,” Dabner said. “I think that we should keep our word on what we told them and hear what they have to say and what they have to offer. We have had a good relationship with First Security, but I do think it makes business sense that we let the Stephens group come and present their proposal and look at both sides.”


Board Member Harold Jackson cast the sole dissenting vote to the motion.


“I think Beardsley is doing a good job, and I don’t see any need of changing,” Jackson said after the meeting.


The board also approved a motion to adopt a proposed budget of expenditures prepared by First Security Beardsley in preparation for November’s election.


Jacqueline Rowlett, financial services manager, also announced an ending balance in June for the district of $3,425,494.20.