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A wise change

November votes good for schools

School board elections in September are a thing of the past due to the governor's signing into law Act 910 of the 2017 legislative session, sponsored by Rep. Mark Lowery and Sen. Jane English. School districts across the state are now making the decision on choosing a date in May or November for school board elections in their respective districts.

As the president of the Board of Directors for the Helena-West Helena School District (HWHSD), I am proud that our district took a leadership role on this issue when it became the first in the state to voluntarily change to November elections in 2016. The Community Advisory Board, which was in place prior to the return of community control of our district, asked Arkansas Department of Education Commissioner Johnny Key to set our elections in November of that year even though we knew it would extend state control for another couple of months, and we did so for a wide variety of reasons that we felt made the choice a moral imperative.

One of the most insidious cancers that led to the well-documented journey that resulted in state control for the district was the disengagement, disenchantment and, in some cases, full-blown detachment of large segments of our community from the governance of the school district. Members of the school board managed to win elections with 100-200 votes (sometimes less) in September elections. Board members ended up having to appeal to a very narrow segment of special interests that dominated the small pool turning out in these elections. This led to a breach of trust as narrow interests made decisions that served a small segment of adults instead of the broad interests of the students and the community in which they live.

This wasn't good for anybody. Our district suffered. So many were disengaged, enrollment was declining, our facilities were crumbling, and passing a millage increase had become next to impossible.

As the Community Advisory Board prepared to re-assume local control of the district, one of the issues foremost on members' minds was the re-establishment of trust and the re-engagement of these large segments of the community with the public school district. This was happening as state law was changing to allow school districts to choose the November option. We immediately asked Commissioner Key to allow us to have this opportunity. He gave it. And we went from having school elections with just a few hundred votes to one where over 4,000 votes were cast.

Fast-forward a few months. The process has resulted in what we hoped. All across our city, a sense of optimism has returned about our schools. Just three months after the community re-assumed control of its schools, the voters responded with the passage of a 9.75-mill increase in our property tax to fund a $28.6 million construction project to build new high school facilities for our students.

Members of the leadership in our education and business communities came together and have formed the Helena-West Helena Public School Foundation to raise private funds to support our academic programs in the public schools. We have established a partnership with Thrive Inc., led by 40-under-40 award recipients Will Staley and Terrance Clark, to enhance the work of our EAST Initiative and Art programs.

I could continue with a laundry list of increased community ties and successes that have started to happen in HWHSD. But the point is all of this was laid by the groundwork of re-establishing trust and re-engaging our community, which I believe has been the direct result of our decision to maximize participation through November elections.

Now that the General Assembly has moved forward with eliminating September school elections totally, districts have a decision to make. It gives me a great amount of pride that Helena-West Helena has set the example and that our Phillips County neighbors in the Barton-Lexa and Marvell-Elaine school districts have followed our lead and have chosen November elections for their districts.

I would encourage districts around the state to choose November. Good things come from the increased engagement that higher-turnout elections bring between your district and your community. Change isn't easy. HWHSD knows that better than anyone. But we embraced it, and the dividends are flowing. We truly feel like the sky is the limit in Cougar Country, but the first step was re-engaging our citizenry.

I hope that the districts across this state embrace this change and maximize involvement from their communities.

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Andrew Bagley is a parent of a child in the Helena-West Helena School District and president of its board.

Editorial on 11/13/2017

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