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AR: Rallying support for higher taxes in Malvern

Summary: Study circles help this community come together to build awareness of their school community and find ways to make improvements, including readily raising taxes.

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AR: Study circles as a framework for community involvement

The small town of Malvern, Arkansas, hadn’t passed a millage tax increase for new schools in more than 30 years. But the 2001 election saw a remarkable turnaround. Spurred on by involved citizens who led the campaign, voters handily approved a 4-mill increase to buy 80 acres on an old cattle ranch in order to build a new elementary school there. Thus began locating all the district’s schools on this single site.

District Characteristics
Name: Malvern
State: Arkansas
Type: Rural
Grades: Pre-k–12
Enrollment: 2,183
Students per teacher: 15

Enrollment Characteristics
Economically disadvantaged: 55.8%
English language learners: 0.2%
Students with disabilities: 12.8%
White: 65.3%
Black: 31.9%
Hispanic: 2.2%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 0.5%
American Indian/Alaska Native: 0.2%
Other: n.a.
Source: SchoolMatters.com

What happened to evoke such community support? For starters, the Malvern school board had started looking at community involvement in a new way. Before the millage request went on the ballot, the board sponsored community conversations—or study circles—led by a trained facilitator.

Small groups talked and listened to their neighbors about what they felt were the district’s strengths and weaknesses, and what they hoped to get from their public schools.

Parents and businesspeople came, and so did some people who hadn’t been in the schools since their children had been students long ago. They saw first-hand the condition of the school buildings. “We invited the community to see ‘under the make-up,’” says board vice-president Vonda West

Cranford. Janitors had kept the floors shining, but the boilers and much of the old nuts-and-bolts of the buildings needed replacing. The schools seemed poised for an upswing, just like the town itself. Malvern, just off Interstate 30, is about 25 miles from Hot Springs National Park. Self-proclaimed “brick capital of the world” (due to the Acme Brick Co.), Malvern had also boasted a large Reynolds Aluminum plant until 1985, when the operation closed and its employees scattered. The loss of families hit the town hard. Today about 10,000 residents call the town home. 

But now Malvern is “coming back,” says Cranford. A Walgreens drugstore was just built, a new Wal-Mart Super Center is pulling in customers, and a state prison has become one of the town’s largest employers.

The Malvern school board has been growing, too, expanding its vision of community involvement. In 2000, all seven board members and Superintendent Ron Holt took advantage of The Leadership Academy, an intensive three-day training program of the Arkansas School Boards Association, which included a sample of the study circle concept.

The board later used this model to work on its strategic plan and as a vehicle to engage the community. At a Saturday morning kickoff, 64 community members sat around the high school cafeteria, recalls Holt, batting around solutions on buildings and schools. Stay in the existing buildings? Combine the grades in a different configuration? Start with a new high school? Board members hovered, listening, as participants coalesced around the 80-acres concept and a new elementary school. After three more meetings, they began looking ahead to the 4-mill vote.

X.L. Jones, a retired school administrator, recalls that on past millage votes, “People seemed not aware, and opposed it because they didn’t want to pay higher taxes.” Study circles helped build awareness this time. And to help focus attention, Jones wrote articles for the local newspaper, pointing out how this [taxes and new building] would help improve instruction.”

Kristi Norris, executive vice-president of Malvern National Bank, agreed to lead the millage campaign. Norris had grown up in Malvern but moved away for college and career. Now she was back. “I was new blood enough to think it was going to pass. And I surrounded myself with people who believed that as well. They all had circles of influence.”

Methodically, they talked to folks at a community senior adult center, passed out “Community for Kids” stickers at football games, spoke at meetings, drove a flatbed trailer through town.

Looking back, board member Cranford says, “If we had never done the Leadership Academy, we probably would have done the request for millage the same old way, leading the campaign ourselves—and we probably would have lost.”

Instead, on Election Night, the plucky band of businesspeople, parents, teachers and supporters gathered at the courthouse to await the results. The millage passed by a comfortable margin (54 to 46 percent). The crowd cheered.

Today the $7.4 million Malvern Elementary already is serving almost 900 K-4 students on the new site. The high school, junior high, Wilson Intermediate and a 5th-6th grade elementary school have yet to make the transition to the new site.

Complete with a beautiful atrium and library, Malvern Elementary has prompted much civic pride. Academic achievement has gone up, though Holt acknowledges, “I’m not going to say the new building is the sole cause.” Involved parents and good teaching make a world of difference.

Holt says of his community, “All the things you hear about the South is here. This district truly reflects rural America.” Like most everywhere, schools are a focal point of the town. “And,” Holt says with pride, “the people here are supportive of schools if reason is shown to be supportive.”

Lessons Learned
  • Make sure a wide range of people are involved—oldtimers, newcomers, businesspeople, students.
  • Make it possible for citizens to “see” problems firsthand, such as the elementary schools in need of repair, so they can form their own opinions.
  • After the community conversations, develop an action plan and find the right leaders to carry it through. Be aware of past experiences (in this case, why past elections failed), but gather together people who believe community involvement can make things different.
  • Appreciate a board and superintendent who are open to new ways of doing things, such as attending the Leadership Academy and launching study circles.

Posted: November 16, 2005

©2005 Center for Public Education

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