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Mineral Springs High School found to be in “academic distress” by the Arkansas Board of Education

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Mineral Springs Superintendent Curtis Turner speaks in front of the Arkansas State Board of Education today during the appeal of the designation of Mineral Springs High School as being in "academic distress". while the lawyer for the school district, Omavi Shukur stands by.

By Nicole Tracy
News-Leader staff

The Mineral Springs School District has lost their appeal with the Arkansas Department of Education over the designation of Mineral Springs High School being in academic distress.

The state board of education moved to officially designate the school as such during a hearing on Aug. 11. Mineral Springs indicated that they will be appealing the decision in Circuit court.

Mineral Springs had been notified on Jan. 27 that the high school had been identified as being in academic distress by the ADE.

Superintendent for the Mineral Springs School District, Curtis Turner and Omavi Shukur, legal counsel for the district, were present at the appeal hearing, with both presenting arguments about the reasoning why MSHS should not be labeled as being in academic distress.

Shukur presented a detailed Powerpoint presentation to the ADE board, characterizing such issues as “the identification of MSHS as being in academic distress and notification to MSSD of MSHS’s academic distress identification was untimely.”

Shukur also pointed to the usage of the results of 2014-2015’s Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) test as being invalid due to no rules being set forth by the Academic Distress program about the test and it’s usage.

“The Academic Distress rules only contain a description of the Benchmark exam performance levels and pass/proficiency levels.” stated the supplemental material submitted by Mineral Springs to the ADE.

“The problem is the State Board of Education never adopted a new or amended rule”, Shukur said, while he argued the meanings of the term “fully operational” during the hearing, stating that according to the ADE, “A test is not fully operational until it had been administered for three consecutive years.” Shukur noted that the Benchmark test had been replaced by the PARCC test, which was then replaced after only a year of use by the ACT/ASPIRE test.

Turner noted during his portion of the testimony that Mineral Springs had missed the target of 49.5% of students meeting the criteria of proficient or advanced. Turner noted that they had missed the target percentage by only four students. “Placing us in academic distress at this time, with the programs that we have in place, won’t do anything but diminish what we’ve already got going,” Turner said to the board during the appeal. “All we are asking, is to give us time to deal with what we already have in place, and see how that grows over this next year.”

The appeal was denied by the ADE board, which then voted to find MSHS in academic distress. The vote was unanimous, with all board members voting yes to the matter. Shukur stated that the district would be filing an appeal in Circuit Court in regard to the matter.

If filed, the suit would make for the second filing by the MSSD against the ADE. A federal judge issued an order allowing changes made to the complaint filed in the lawsuit brought by the Mineral Springs School Board against the Arkansas Department of Education and Hempstead County on July 22. The order, issued by Judge D.P. Marshall Jr., also denied a motion to dismiss by the defendants in the case.

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. 

The lawsuit is critical of the ADE, an agency where Turner once worked in the Fiscal Distress Unit, and asks for declaratory judgement 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 the the lawsuit.

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.

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.” The current district enrollment is 420 with approximately 330 minority students and 90 white students. A tentative court date of November 6, 2017 has been set in the original legal matter.