Leader Blues

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

TOP STORY >> Schools director sets his agenda

By JOAN MCCOY
Leader staff writer

Cabot is the fastest-growing school district in the state and one of the best, according to Tom Kimbrell, the newly appointed commissioner of the Arkansas Department of Education.

He starts his job on Sept. 28, the same day as the lottery.

“I’m a proud Cabot resident,” he told the Cabot Rotary Club on Tuesday. “The school district has been very good to my two children.”

But not all districts are growing. Many are shrinking and not performing well, he said.

“We’ve got school districts that are failing kids,” he said.

His job at the Department of Education will be to help those districts do better, he said.

He predicted that some of those that don’t and those in areas with shrinking populations and enrollment of less than 350 will have to consolidate.

Within a few years, there will be some county school districts, he said.

In 1965, Arkansas had 412 school districts, he said. Now because of consolidation there are 244 and 16 charter schools.

Kimbrell said the governor believes strongly in education.

And he agrees with the governor, he said, that the Department of Education needs some reorganization.

“We’ve got to get people in the right places at the Department of Education,” he said. “There are great people over there working but not in the right places.”

Kimbrell’s address to the Rotarians was a history lesson on where Arkansas schools are now and how they got there.

At the start of the Civil War, the state had 727 public schools and 757 teachers, he said. In 1874, the state legislature mandated free public school for children 6-21. By the early 1900s, local property tax was the funding source. By 1926, after the state legislature had mandated free public education and then told the counties they would pay for schools with property tax, the number of school districts had increased to 4,734 school districts in 1926. By 1941, consolidation and that number had shrunk to 2,800.

Lawsuits have forced the state to equalize the money available to school districts to ensure that they would offer courses the state requires and that their facilities would be adequate.

But one of the major tasks still ahead, he said, is to help struggling districts provide better educations for their students.

The governor confirmed Kimbrell as the new commissioner of education Monday after the State Board of Education voted unanimously to hire him.

“Tom shares my philosophy that education is Arkansas’s top priority and he knows that we can continue increasing student achievement through strong standards and rigorous curriculum,” Beebe said in a press release. “He has also proven his ability to work with the diverse range of individuals and groups it takes to build an excellent education system.”