One day before the State Department of Education voted to take over the Pine Bluff School District, the superintendent of the city's only district not under state control talked about his own set of challenges.
Jerry Guess, who has 30 years of experience in education and was formerly superintendent of the Camden School District and the Pulaski County School District, was hired in July to replace former superintendent Connie Hathorn, who retired.
Guess was given a one-year contract.
He was the speaker at the weekly meeting of the Kiwanis Club and said the state has expressed concern about the finances for the district, citing a declining balance from the previous year, and over-staffing.
Both Dollarway and now Pine Bluff's district are under state control for fiscal distress. The Pine Bluff district is also in danger academically, and the state board will meet in October to discuss that issue.
Guess said the district has more teachers now than it did when there were more than 3,000 students enrolled several years ago, adding that the average enrollment during the 2017-18 school year has declined to about 2,540, which amounts to a loss of 80 students in about a year's time.
“Too many positions are contributing to a declining balance,” he said. “The contracts for this school year were signed on the last day of the 2017-18 school year, and we have to honor the contracts.”
Property in the 117 square-mile-district is assessed at $113 million, or 20 percent of its appraised value of about $500 million.
Guess said the district receives $6,781 per student from local taxes and the state but said it costs $9,921 per student to educate them.
“Of course there are additional funds available,” he said. “Money for special education, and for food service and the like.”
Guess said a big issue is the poverty rate not only in his district but in the other two districts in the city, Pine Bluff and Dollarway, particularly for students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
“Eighty-two percent of our students qualify,” he said. “Pine Bluff's rate is 98 percent, and Dollarway also has a high percentage.”
The rate for the White Hall School District is much lower, he said.
“White Hall is a more middle class, middle-income district,” Guess said.
Watson Chapel has 162 licensed teachers under contract for this school year, earning an average annual salary of $49,000. Adding the pay of administrators raises the average annual salary to $51,745.
“That's the 48th highest salary in the state,” Guess said.
The cost of transportation adds another $1.589 million annually to the district's expenses, he said, adding that 1,200 students, or almost half of the district's total enrollment, ride a bus to and from school.
That translates to 1,340 miles per month, or 240,000 miles per year. Of that, 64,000 miles are for special events, with sporting events responsible for half of the total, along with other trips accounting for the rest.
In addition to too many positions, Guess said the turnover rate for teachers is a concern as the district has seen a 20 percent turnover rate each year, and this year 40 new teachers were hired.
“Stability is critical in my business,” he said.
Guess said the district has five campuses, and there are “challenges with some of them.”
“The state would pay 80 percent of the costs of new construction, but the assessment rate for the district is 34.1 mills, and that's one of the lowest in the state,” he said.