There’s been much talk this week over a letter written by Little Rock School Board member Leslie Fisken which excoriates her colleagues on the board as “rude, arrogant and dysfunctional” and incapable of working with district superintendent Dexter Suggs. It drew a sharp response from Jim Ross, another member of the board, who says Fisken’s allegations of dysfunction are premature and misguided.
Now there’s a second rebuttal to Fisken from board Vice President Joy Springer, who, like Ross, defeated an incumbent last fall by campaigning on a platform of aggressive reform. Like the previous two letters, it’s addressed to Vicki Saviers, a member of the Arkansas State Board of Education who chairs a crucial subcommittee on academically distressed schools:
The impetus behind all this correspondence is a crucial meeting on Wednesday between that subcommittee and the Little Rock School District (LRSD). Because several schools in the LRSD are deemed “academically distressed” — a majority of their students are performing below grade level — the district could possibly be taken over the the state. Fisken’s original letter seems to imply that that’s a wise course of action for the state to pursue; Ross and Springer strongly disagree.
“I am compelled to respond to these unfounded allegations, which if accepted, could have the effect of nullifying the will of the people to elect representatives to govern the school district responsible for the education of their children,” Springer says in her letter.
As Ross did yesterday, Springer disputes Fisken’s allegations that the board has interfered with Suggs’ programmatic initiatives and that board members claim ignorance of LRSD communications in order to “cast a shadow” on the superintendent’s credibility. She says the board’s sometimes heated discussions are part of the business of governing.
“I believe that the majority of the Board would say that the Board has had productive, healthy dialogue,” Springer writes.
She especially takes issue with the idea that the board has “micromanaged” Suggs. “I insist upon honest, truthful information from the administration to our inquiries. In seeking election to the LRSD Board, I committed to my patrons that I would insist upon improved administrative accountability in order to improve student achievement.”
Springer also addresses two figures that critics of the LRSD have frequently cited to illustrate its dysfunction: First, that the district in the past 25 years has burned through a new superintendent every couple of years on average, and second, that the LRSD has fired almost no teachers for poor job performance during that same time period. To many in the school reform movement, this is the root of the district’s problems — bad governance and an intransigent teachers’ union.
However, Springer says that the district isn’t unusual in cycling through superintendents. “Review of educational periodicals … indicates that the average tenure of a superintendent in urban districts is approximately 3 years,” she writes. She also points out that it’s unfair to blame the current board for what’s happened with supers in years past. “My review of the data indicates that the LRSD has had 9 superintendents between the period of 1985 to 2004. During these years, the majority board was Caucasian. During the 2006-2007 school year, the Board became majority African American. There have been four superintendents including Dr. Suggs.”
As for teachers, Springer indicates that the reason so few have been fired is because the union advises its members to resign if they’re facing termination due to poor performance. “The LREA [Little Rock Education Association] has communicated to me that over 25 teachers voluntarily resigned because of poor job performance during that time,” she says.
Here’s the full letter: