Two seats on the seven-member Little Rock School Board are up for election on Sept. 16, and incumbents in both zones face challengers fiercely critical of the direction of the city’s schools and LRSD superintendent Dexter Suggs. On Thursday night, a forum hosted by Arkansas Community Organizations gave the public a chance to hear the four candidates answer questions about their plans to turn around the troubled district, which contains multiple schools in academic distress and faces a slow motion budget crisis in the coming years as state desegregation payments dry up.
Jody Carreiro has served on the school board since 2008 as the member from Zone 5, which is in West Little Rock. His motivation for running for reelection, he said, is that his own daughters received an excellent education from the LRSD and he wants “to see that excellence spread to all.” Carreiro, an actuary with a modest demeanor who’s generally considered to be an engaged and diligent presence on the board, described his candidacy as “my meager way of trying to give back to our city for the good things they’ve done for our family.”
The budget crunch will require “adult-sized conversations” about personnel cuts, said Carreiro, including administrative positions. But, he emphasized, “what we need to do is be more efficient in school size, and in program size, so that every child can get what they need.”
Contrast that mild tone with Zone 5 challenger Jim Ross. “The LR school district is in crisis,” he declared. “There’s no amount of wishful thinking…that will change that reality.” Ross, a UALR history professor and LRSD parent, faulted superintendent Dexter Suggs for many of the district’s woes and said the school board was complicit in the district’s “failures.”
“We have a budget crisis. Many on this board and this superintendent are spending money with no concern for tomorrow. We have a leadership problem. We have a superintendent that has been allowed to ignore policies that have been put into place to protect due process of the kids, teachers, parents, the whole community. At the same time, this board has allowed this superintendent to hire associates in the six figure range.” Ross said he’d like to immediately freeze all new spending on technology and all new hires.
“Thirdly, we have a program crisis,” continued Ross. “This board allowed this superintendent to remove tested, research-based programs that helped the most vulnerable children in our district, and replace it with untried and untested programs.” He was speaking of Reading Recovery, the effective literacy intervention program that some say Suggs has squelched. The facts on the ground about whether Reading Recovery has or has not actually been discontinued are oddly in dispute, but it’s an issue that has turned the teachers union and some parents squarely against Suggs.
Ross, a passionate and articulate speaker, delivers a compelling call to arms. But the district has burned through 20 superintendents in the past thirty years, and Suggs has been in his job for only a single school year. Has he had a fair shot? (He began with overwhelming community support, which has quickly eroded.) Ross speaks of holding Suggs accountable by providing more stringent board oversight, but some watchers of the LRSD worry that more division on the board — and heavier intervention into the duties of the superintendent — might simply deepen its chronic dysfunction.
Carreiro spoke to those concerns later in the forum, saying, “when you have a seven-person board, you do not need a crusader — you need a collaborator.” Tough issues facing the district, from budget cuts to Reading Recovery to teacher health benefits, will indeed require compromise, Carreiro implied. Yet notably, I didn’t hear Carreiro (or Johnson, the other incumbent) give a ringing endorsement of Suggs at any point during the night.
Ross described himself as an “advocate”, not a crusader. He held up a spreadsheet showing literacy scores at elementary schools around the city, with low-performing schools highlighted in red. All but one elementary in the city, said Ross, aren’t making the grade with early childhood literacy. “There’s really only one issue,” he said. “It’s all the red on this paper. Kids can’t read.”
Zone 1, which encompasses downtown and east Little Rock, is a race with a different electorate but a similar dynamic — a fiery outsider challenging a more accommodating incumbent. Norma Jean Johnson currently holds the Zone 1 and has served on the board since 2011; she’s also the mother of a former LRSD student and works for the state Highway Department. She’s running against Joy Springer (as of yet, I’m unaware of a campaign website or Facebook page for Springer), who is best known for her work as an assistant to veteran civil rights attorney and state representative John Walker.
The fact of Springer’s collaboration with Walker alone will probably decide how most likely voters in the Zone 1 race will cast their ballot, since Walker’s constant and very loud presence in the affairs of the district is a matter of such contention. For the past three decades, he’s fought tireless legal battles to secure an equitable education for Pulaski County’s poor and minority children. And in the process, according to his many opponents, he’s sown much of the division that plagues the district today.
Springer had a previously scheduled campaign engagement and so her personal representative would answer questions in her stead until she arrived, said forum moderator Brittney Johnson of KARK. That representative turned out to be none other than…John Walker. (Springer showed up for about the last half hour of the session.)
Johnson defended the record of the board under her tenure, and of Suggs, at least somewhat. “Was there every a board or superintendent who made everybody happy?” she asked rhetorically. “We are doing the best we can.” She also said that the relentless negativity directed at LRSD by its critics was a big part of the problem.
“We do have a great school district,”Johnson said. “I love my district. We need to uplift, be a little more positive.” As to the coming budget crunch, she agrees that staff cuts will be necessary. She also said the district needs to take a hard look at programs that may duplicate services already offered by the school. “Sometimes we have employees in the district who are [already] trained to do what the programs are doing.”
Springer, in a written statement about cuts, said “I would more than likely insist that a committee (teachers, parents, administrators, etc.) be formed in order to give proper consideration to this concern and make recommendations for possible cuts. The board needs to consider cutting budget items that are as much as possible not tied to student learning. I personally have some recommendations for cuts such as legal fees and other administrative costs.”
Some will see an irony there, as Springer is herself seeking sizable lawyer’s fees for her work on the Pulaski County desegregation suit. However, Springer says she is not seeking any payments from the LRSD, but rather from the state. She notes that it is normal and appropriate to seek reimbursement for legal fees in the case of such a settlement, and says the LRSD’s payments to other attorneys far outweighs anything paid to Walker’s firm or herself.
Springer said her priorities as a board member would include improving teacher morale, which she said was “as low as possible” within the district, and reviewing the punitive alternative school system. She also jabbed at Suggs, whom she has criticized in the past for many of the same points that Jim Ross made above.
“If elected I’ll ensure we have improved administrative accountability,” she said in her closing remarks. “I will represent leadership that you can trust.”
I’ll have more about the four candidates and their positions next week. In the meantime, I’d welcome any questions, comments or corrections. (I sure have one: why would anyone want to run for this thankless job?)
Support for education reporting provided by the Arkansas Public Policy Panel.