Back in 2011, the state Department of Education placed the Helena-West Helena School District on its Fiscal Distress List and took over its oversight and operation.
“I remember the day well because I haven't slept much since,” said Suzann McCommon, the district's chief executive officer.
Back in 2011, the state Department of Education placed the Helena-West Helena School District on its Fiscal Distress List and took over its oversight and operation. “I remember the day well because I haven't slept much since,” said Suzann McCommon, the district's chief executive officer. McCommon gave a status report on the local school district Wednesday at the regular weekly luncheon meeting of the Helena-West Helena Rotary Club. When McCommon came to the H-WH School District as a special education teacher back in 1973, there were 5,000 students enrolled here. By the time the state took control of the district for a second time, those figures had dropped dramatically to 2,300. Today, she said, that enrollment has dipped to 1,650. However, she added, those figures appear to be stabilizing. Following the state turnover, the financially strapped school district began getting the bills paid. Since then, a few old bills turned up and an inventory clean up turned up some items that hadn't been taken off the books, but according to McCommon, the district is about caught up paying off its old debts. “When I and Mr. (Ulicious) Reed came in as CEO and chief financial officer respectively, we quickly found that we were overstaffed,” reported McCommon. “We immediately implemented a Reduction In Force Plan (RIF) and closed three buildings, among them Beechcrest and Westside elementary schools.” Despite the efficiency of Durham Bus Services, which was operating the district's school bus fleet at the time, McCommon and Reed determined that the district could provide transportation at a lower cost and opted to not renew the district's contract with Durham. “We were paying $900,000 for the bus service plus the district was out-of-pocket for any bus repairs over $500,” commented McCommon. “So, we knocked out three routes, rehired the drivers at a little higher pay than Durham was paying but cut come some time.” McCommon added that the district quit buying things it could do without and began a reorganization plan. All of the preschool, primary and elementary grades, Pre-K through 6, were merged onto the Eliza Miller campus. All secondary students, grades 7 through 12 were shuttled to the Central campus. The district recently appointed a new advisory board that will serve until the state returns local control to the district and the patrons elect a school board again. “For the first time since 2009, the district was able to recommend pay raises for its teachers,” stressed McCommon. According to McCommon, 96 percent of the students in the H-WH School District receive free or reduced lunches. “That is not something to be proud of,” she stated. “Backpacks of Food” is a program sponsored by the school district that provides food for students that won't have enough food over the weekend. The program serves about 150 families.