ES after-school program in limbo
The future of the Community Center After-School Program is uncertain.
Representatives from the Eureka Springs Community Center Foundation attended the Eureka Springs School Board’s Monday meeting to advocate for the program and discuss possible paths for the Eureka Springs School District to continue providing it.
Chairwoman Diane Murphy said she visited with Superintendent Bryan Pruitt and district treasurer Pam McGarrah to discuss the possibility of the district entering into a contract for services with the community center to provide after-school care.
“I had asked [foundation board member] Jack Moyer to do some research because he has some contacts at the Arkansas Department of Education (ADE) that I don’t have,” Murphy said. “We contacted Lori Freno, general counsel for ADE.”
She continued, “We asked her ‘Can the school district enter into a contract for services with a nonprofit to provide after-school care?’ and ‘Can the school district use unrestricted funds for the contract for services for after-school care?’ ”
Murphy said Freno responded positively to both questions. Moyer said the path would include entering into a contract for services with a third party, a nonprofit in this scenario, and operating the after-school program under a memorandum of understanding (MOU).
Pruitt said he had contacted Arkansas School Boards Association (ASBA) staff attorney Kristen Craig Garner about the idea, and she did not recommend that the district pursue it.
“In fact, she said even if the community center uses our school campus we have to charge you to use those facilities,” Pruitt said. “On using school funds for an after-school program, we can’t legally do it.”
He continued, “I know sometimes it looks like we have lots of wealth sitting around because we have a large balance in our building fund, but we also have to look at the debt at our high school. We still owe about $12.2 million on that. We do not get state foundation money to pay for that. We pay for it locally with district funds.”
Moyer said the community center foundation reached out to ADE commissioner Johnny Key and advocate Marla Johnson, who co-founded marketing agency Aristotle Inc. Moyer said Johnson connected them to Dr. Jay Barth, chair of the State Board of Education.
“Barth reviewed what we are trying to accomplish and set us on a path,” Moyer said. “He first sent us to Laveta Wills-Hale, the head of [Arkansas Out of School Network]. She helped us craft this strategy.”
He continued, “We reached back out to commissioner Key, and we authorized his general counsel to evaluate our situation and to also vet the solution that was developed through Laveta.”
Moyer said Key advised the after-school program could continue through a contract for services and a MOU between the district and the community center foundation.
“There’s also an opportunity for Eureka Springs to receive money back by providing an after-school program,” Moyer said. “The after-school program runs through National School Lunch (NSL) funds. The Arkansas state legislature has thrown another $3 million into that fund for match money.”
He continued, “If we devise a strategy where you take unrestricted funds and you put it into the NSL fund, then you can use that fund to pay for your after-school program via a contract for services with a third party, in this case the community center.”
Afterward, he said the district could apply for a matching grant, and that money will come back to the district.
“You may not get 100 percent of it back,” Moyer said. “You’re going to have to spend it out first. The core element is ‘How will after-school services be provided for our kids in the school district?’ ”
Board president Chris McClung said everyone can agree the after-school program is a good thing for the community. The issue, he said, is that the district may not be able to help because of legal concerns.
“Garner talks about NSL funding in the email she sent us,” he said. “Her comment is ‘Your district can only use NSL funds to operate a program to serve NSL-qualifying students and serve them directly by offering things such as remediation or tutoring.’ ”
McClung said Garner advised that NSL funds cannot be used for childcare, even if 100 percent of the children in the program were NSL-qualified. She said the district cannot use NSL funds and open the program up to all students without charging the students who aren’t NSL-qualified a market rate for after-school programming, he said.
“In the MOU, you can identify the standards and how you want to deliver the service,” Moyer said. “That is viable. It’s a good solution. We’re trying to be a partner that does the right thing for the after-school program for the community.”
He continued, “If we have two attorneys that don’t see eye to eye, one with the state association and one with ADE, that’s probably not the first time that’s ever happened, but I would take a wild guess that they can reconcile those two positions.”
Board member Al Larson recommended having the attorneys speak to each other about a possible solution.
“I think we are in agreement that we want to do something for the after-school program,” he said.
“What would be the chances of getting Garner together with Freno to discuss?” McClung asked.
“It would be high,” Moyer said. “We’re all on the same team here. You might have to look a little outside the box, which we’ve always had to do here in Eureka Springs.”
“From my experience, there is no ‘outside of the box’ in the school system,” said board member Gayla Wolfinbarger.
Murphy said the community center foundation needs to communicate with after-school program director Carrie Gay about what will happen to the program.
“Can we set a goal for an answer?” she asked the board. “We have to communicate with her that either ‘Yes, we found a path’ or ‘No, there is not going to be an after-school program’ and notify the parents. Can we arrange a conference call for the lawyers this week?”
“We can try,” McClung said.
“It’s difficult to set a timeline,” Larson said.
“We will get three possible dates together by this Thursday,” Moyer said.
Pruitt said that sounded good. After the meeting, he said the district will support the after-school program however it can but must ultimately follow the advice of its attorneys.
“The school board and I are very supportive of the community center’s after-school program,” Pruitt said. “We feel it is beneficial for the students of the Eureka Springs School District. However, at the advice of Johnny Key, the state education commissioner of Arkansas, we must follow advice from our school board attorneys and legislative auditors for spending taxpayers’ funds.”
Also at the meeting, the board voted to approve the transfer of $360,000 from the operating balance to the building fund and the transfer of $85,000 from the operating fund to Building Fund 3200 as required by Act 1105.
“Act 1105 is an act the legislators came up with where they track your balances more, and they require you to reduce your budget down to 20 percent each year,” Pruitt said. “The 3200 fund is a coding fund in the state. We have $85,000 left over to reduce down to that 20 percent, so we will put that into that 3200 fund.”
The board also voted to approve the 2018 school improvement plans and to appoint board member Jason Morris as the legislative liaison.
The board’s next regular meeting is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Monday, Aug. 20, in the administration building.