Administrators from the Little Rock School District (LRSD) and six out of seven members of the LR School Board today appeared before the Academic Distress subcommittee of the State Board of Education. It was an unusual meeting, specially called to discuss the precarious situation facing the LRSD: Six of its schools are classified as academically distressed, including three of the city’s five high schools. The State Board has the power to take over a district containing even one academically distressed school.
The State Board has no immediate plans to do that, but chairman Sam Ledbetter and other members sent a clear message to the LR board that a takeover is certainly on the table.
“The thing that’s disturbed me most…is this lack of continuity, this lack of stability,” said Ledbetter. “What success looks like is stability, continuity, commitment to a plan…and if I don’t see that, particularly if I don’t see it at the board level…then I don’t see success. There’s nothing I can do to make a teacher effective, but we can take care of school board members fussing and feuding. We can darn sure take care of that. We’ve done it in other districts.”
“State takeover is not a cure for anything, but it can bring stability to a situation,” he continued. “This board is going to somehow have to find a way to support what is going on in this district, or it’s never going to happen.”
Vicki Saviers, the member heading the Academic Distress subcommittee, also warned that the State Board is running out of patience. “We have a crisis in the Little Rock School District. It’s not new, but I think those of us on this board decided we just couldn’t watch it anymore,” she said. Saviers later recommended to the committee that the LRSD be called back in before the committee in three months to review its progress, adding, “I’m concerned about implementation and your capacity to implement the plan.”
UPDATE after the jump:
At the risk of oversimplifying the dynamics on the current LR School Board, today’s meeting was something of a rebuke to the new members who just won election last month, Jim Ross and Joy Springer. Ross and Springer replaced two incumbents who tended to side with current board president Greg Adams and back up Superintendent Dexter Suggs, whose policy decisions in his one year as LRSD executive have come under fire from the teachers union and critics such as attorney John Walker. Springer and Ross campaigned on a vow to hold Suggs more accountable, and their election seems to have shifted the balance of power on the board decisively in favor of those who view the superintendent’s first year on the job with a more skeptical eye. (Members Dianne Curry, C.E. McAdoo and Tara Shephard have also signaled that they’re not entirely satisfied with Suggs’ performance, giving a 5-2 edge to the super’s critics on the board.)
Among other things, today’s meeting before the State Board gave Suggs an opportunity to fire back. The district has developed an improvement plan that can work, he said, but he said the district board “gives me some level of concern about whether we can move with urgency…this is a conversation that should have taken place 6 to 8 years ago, in my view. We’re in the last minutes.” He mentioned the high level of superintendent turnover in the past twenty years as a major impediment to creating a better school system.
Suggs also jabbed at the teachers union. “We’ve dismissed one person for poor performance in the past two decades,” he said. From 1997 to 2014, Suggs said, the LRSD student population has held steady at around 25,000 kids, but the number of employees has risen from 2,600 to 3,900. “The LRSD has been more of an employment agency for quite some time,” he said, provocatively.
“We have failed generation after generation after generation,” said the superintendent. “We have to prove we are willing to do something different, and we have to be very bold … we can’t afford to lose another generation of students.”
State Board member Toyce Newton told Suggs his comments were “courageous, and maybe a little foolhardy, too” but agreed that the academic situation in the LRSD’s failing schools is unacceptable. “We cannot allow this trend to continue and wonder why we don’t have an adequate workforce, why the Department of Correction continues to build new beds … we are looking at a system where we keep feeding poor performance from one school to another school. This is outrageous, I think.”
Springer, Ross and the other LR board members assured the State Board that they were committed to working together. But, Ross added, “I hope that affirmation doesn’t get taken to mean that we won’t ask hard questions.” After the meeting, he noted that Suggs painted a narrative in which “the basic presupposition is that the problem in the district is the teachers” and that “the bad guys are the union.” Ross said a bigger obstacle to academic progress is resistance to change by LRSD middle management, inadequate content and a lack of critical evaluation of what does and doesn’t work.
Both Ross and Springer said afterwards they still believe the board’s job is to firmly guide a new, relatively inexperienced superintendent in implementing the right building-level strategies and curriculum changes. “I plan to hold the superintendent accountable … I’m not going to let up on what I intended to do,” said Springer.
But what exactly will it take to turn around the six academically distressed schools in a district beset with a loss of funding in the coming years? Can Suggs’s plan — which was released only last week and is by his own admission very much a work in progress — make a serious difference? In the coming months, we’ll be taking a closer look at that plan and what’s being done to turn the tide in Little Rock’s failing schools. The State Board of Education will be as well.
Funding for education reporting provided by the Arkansas Public Policy Panel.