Don’t change school site, Watley asks

In an open letter to Arkansas Department of Education Commissioner Johnny Key, Go Forward Pine Bluff CEO Ryan Watley asked the state’s education agency to rebuild Pine Bluff High School at its present West 11th Avenue location and “move aggressively” to return the Pine Bluff School District to a fully elected local board.

Watley opposed an idea by District Superintendent Barbara Warren to rebuild the high school at the site of the old Belair Elementary School on Commerce Road. Both Watley and Warren have said the option, which is not a final decision, differs from a plan by former Superintendent Jeremy Owoh to construct a new campus at the present high school location.

The Education Department last August approved a partnership with the PBSD to rebuild the high school on a footage replacement plan. The estimated cost of the project is between $22 million and $23 million.

But in her reasons for what she called a “wild hair” idea to relocate the high school to the old Belair campus — as well as a temporary but unfinalized plan to move high school operations to Jack Robey Junior High School — Warren cited safety Concerns and the minimization of campus entrance points. Warren made those concerns public during a March 29 interest meeting for the district’s facilities committee.

“This proposal has rocked our community,” Watley wrote in the open letter. “The mere conversation around relocation distracts us from addressing our severe decline in academic achievement and delaying the immediate need to build. The state board of education approved the official high school construction plan in August of 2021. The District is now eight months behind on constructing , razing and renovating facilities to provide a conducive educational environment.”

Earlier in the letter, Watley suggested state and district officials — although he didn’t accuse them directly — have failed to discuss the plan with community stakeholders, adding that “demonstrates an unwillingness to collaborate to benefit all residents, specifically the children of Pine Bluff.” Nearby downtown Pine Bluff has taken in approximately $40 million in investments over the past four years, and closing PBHS would affect students’ and faculty members’ direct access to the Arts and Science Center for Southeast Arkansas, the Jefferson County Main Library and the city Aquatics Center, among other establishments centrally located in Pine Bluff, Watley said.

Watley also called out the district’s substandard performance on the ACT Aspire exam and the lack of certified teachers in the school system.

“Though Dr. Watley’s letter comes across as accusatory and does not strike a collaborative tone, I understand it reflects the frustration with long-standing underperformance of the Pine Bluff School District,” Key said in a statement released to The Pine Bluff Commercial on Tuesday . “We are working closely with Superintendent Warren to improve the curriculum and strengthen instruction, increase the leadership capacity of principals, and provide social workers for student needs. We are also working with the district to develop plans for improved facilities, and there will be continued opportunities for public input as plans are developed. It is always easy to identify the problems. I invite Go Forward Pine Bluff to bring their ideas for solutions to address the facilities deficiencies to Superintendent Warren.”

Pine Bluff High School students walked out of class last Thursday to protest the lack of safety on their campus and around the city, given recent acts of violence that claimed student Tristian Harris, 17, and other local teens. The students also voiced their opposition against possibly being relocated to Robey, which serves grades 6-8.

Watley said he takes offense to anyone not from Pine Bluff characterizing the safety of the city or its schools in a negative manner without evidence. He referred to a comment ADE Deputy Commissioner Stacy Smith gave to The Commercial about the school last month.

“The Pine Bluff High School campus is located in an area that has experienced a myriad of crimes involving gun violence and theft,” Smith said in an email. “It is an open campus with multiple access points, and the gang activity and other criminal behavior in the community is severely impacting the campus culture. Additionally, the number of vacant houses in the area has created a safety concern for students walking to and from school. It is impossible to improve academic outcomes when students and teachers are fearful of what might happen to them before, during, and after school hours.”

The claims of safety, or lack thereof, are unsubstantiated, Watley said.

“They have not presented data or evidence of gang activity while school is going on,” he said, referring to the Education Department. “What I want to see … show me where you want to relocate is better. We cannot retreat in fashion anymore when conditions are not optimal. We are in a season of addressing issues.”

A partnership with the city and Go Forward Pine Bluff, which is a public-private tax initiative, could help the PBSD address safety in and around the high school, Watley suggested, with ongoing downtown development just a few blocks away.

“I’m not certain we can afford to rebuild somewhere other than what we have in place,” said Watley, a PBHS alumnus. “We could be in a new school, and it is rocking our community to even be having these discussions.”

The district has operated under state control, or under direction of the Education Department, since September 2018 due to financial distress. State and district leaders have said a limited-authority board could take control of the PBSD by January 2023, with the possibility of an appointed or elected board with full control by November of that year.

Under state law, school districts taken over by the state after five years must either be annexed with another, consolidated with another to form a new district, returned to local board control or reconstituted with another form of governance. The state Board of Education decided in December 2020 to annex the Dollarway School District, which was under state control since December 2015, into the PBSD effective July 1, 2021.

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