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MS superintendent: District due plenty; federal lawsuit ‘last resort’

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By John Balch

Leader staff

A federal lawsuit filed last week, which takes the state Department of Education to task and seeks millions in tax funds, is the “last resort” for the Mineral Springs School District to be treated equally and be allowed to progress, according to Superintendent Curtis Turner, Jr.

The lawsuit was filed Monday, Feb. 29 in the Eastern Division of the United States District Court by attorney John W. Walker on behalf of Turner and the Mineral Springs School Board. Defendants are listed as Arkansas Department of Education Commissioner Johnny Key, the ADE and ADE board members, and Hempstead County.

“We filed this lawsuit as a last resort because it appears that the state, by labeling us in academic distress as it has done with other districts like ours, has made the decision to take over our district,” Turner said. “Districts, which have been taken over by the state, don’t do well.”

The lawsuit is critical of the ADE, an agency where Turner once worked in the Fiscal Distress Unit, and asks for declaratory judgment for “unlawful action” by the ADE. The alleged action led to the Mineral Springs district being wrongly labeled in fiscal distress, and “knowingly diminished the quality of education of the African-American students” in the district, according to case filings.

The lawsuit also contends the ADE beginning in 2004 and continuing to the present “encouraged transfers of white students and black athletes” from the Mineral Springs district to the nearby Nashville School District, which is described as a “white flight” school. The complaint alleges some of the athletes were recruited.

In 2008, under School Choice law, “approximately 100 resident white students in Mineral Springs and some black student athletes either left or were recruited by the Nashville School District to attend the latter’s district schools,” attorney Walker wrote.

The ADE is accused of more actions which “accelerated white flight of students and teachers” to Nashville and eventually led to the state takeover of the district prior to Turner’s arrival in March 2013. “State officials took over the school and thereafter did nothing to improve their fiscal or academic state,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit also alleges the ADE encouraged and helped pay for the Nashville district to construct approximately $8 million of additional facilities – including an athletic facility – “which would accommodate approximately 10 percent of the Mineral Springs students.”

“On information and belief, the school facilities were constructed in order for Nashville to enroll the academically strongest students and staff” from the Mineral Springs district, according to the lawsuit.

Turner took over at the Mineral Springs district while it was in “deep financial trouble” after being offered the position by then ADE Commissioner Tom Kimbrell. An affidavit by Turner included in the lawsuit states he asked Kimbrell why the district remained open and had not been combined with Nashville; Kimbrell reportedly replied. “It would not be fair to Doug,” referring to Nashville Superintendent Doug Graham.

“Plaintiff Turner took this to mean that the ADE was unprepared at that time to adversely affect the Nashville School District by the assignment of approximately 400 African American students to the Nashville district, an act which would have made the Nashville enrollment approximately 35 percent African American” according to the lawsuit.

A former ADE employee, Wendy Reed, now employed as federal programs director at the Mineral Springs district, backs the lawsuit’s claims that the district should not had been placed in fiscal distress and was actually financially solvent.

Reed wrote in an affidavit that before her on-site ADE assignment at the district she was informed the district “had virtually no resources and would end the year with a negative balance.” Within two hours of reviewing finances, Reed said she learned the district had “more than enough” resources to have a positive fund balance – including $500,000 “the ADE had not found.” The next day, another approximately $700,000 was located.

The district’s finances have been shored up since July 2013. The district has received tax amounts of $3-$4 million annually from revenue generated by the new SWEPCO power plant, located outside of Saratoga in Hempstead County and inside the Mineral Springs School District. Turner learned the funds had been historically diverted and an agreement was reached for Hempstead County to begin paying the tax funds due the district, according to attorney Walker.

The lawsuit contends the district is due more revenue from Hempstead County from 2009 to present in the form of “in lieu taxes” that will amount to $8 million between 2009 and 2041.

Based on his experience as superintendent and work with the ADE’s Fiscal Distress Unit, Turner wrote, “I believe that ADE knew or should have known that these (power plant tax) funds were due Mineral Springs much earlier than 2013. The ADE was actually in charge of the finances of the district on two separate occasions for a total period of at least three year. What I learned about the district’s finances in a short time should have been discerned while ADE was managing the district’s finances.”

The district is also seeking approximately $210,000 in National School Lunch Act funds Turner said were wrongly withheld by the state. He claims the funds were held back after the district was denied access to the state’s financial reports system.

The Mineral Springs district was released from fiscal distress in October 2014.

The lawsuit also takes issue with the ADE’s rejection of the district’s “focus” designation and the letter grade the district had received. Turner states the ADE’s merging of test scores for Saratoga and Mineral Springs students “caused catastrophic decline in the test scores,” and was “foreseeable and predictable and not the fault of the Mineral Springs administration.”

“My district faces the anomaly of being given the letter grade C for the high school and F for the elementary school. However, the high school, which received the letter grade of C is the one being tagged in academic distress while the elementary school meets all standards of the state,” Turner wrote in his affidavit.

Plans are currently underway at Mineral Springs to build a new school, possibly K-12 under one roof, and with plans to enhance the Saratoga campus. Turner said the plans are pending ADE approval and he fears the state will reject the new construction “because the district is majority African American.” The current district enrollment is 420 with approximately 330 minority students and 90 white students.

“We will be able to retain our white students, I believe, and attract new white students and others because of our newly discovered adequacy of our resources through which we may offer to them enhanced educational opportunities, new facilities, and a more secure staff,” Turner wrote the facility plans.

Turner is also concerned the ADE will try another takeover and a removal of the school board, based on his observation of the ADE and the fact the school board makeup is “majority minority.”

“If removal occurs, I will become the first white superintendent of a school in fiscal or academic distress to be removed,” according to Turner, who added his removal would likely cast doubt on his work performance.

In a statement released to The Nashville Leader last week, Turner said he and the school board will continue to stand up for the school district and plan to see the lawsuit through.

“With the district, the buck stops with me; and with the state, the buck stops there; and with the county (Hempstead) taxing authorities, they also have a duty to provide us with the tax revenues that we are due,” Turner said Friday about the decision to file the lawsuit. “To this end, the board has authorized legal action in the hope that the district may become secure, obtain its due tax monies, provide an excellent education to our students, and have our teachers and other staff treated with respect, dignity, and equal pay.”

Mineral Springs School Board members include William Dixon, Mike Erwin, Jamie Jackson, Sheila Jackson, Ray Hawkins, Zemera Newton and Dorothy Vaughn.