The state Board of Education this morning adopted a committee’s recommendation to hold a special meeting Jan. 28 on what actions to take regarding the six Little Rock School District schools in academic distress. The Education Department and School District will have an opportunity to file opinions before the meeting.
Board members Jay Barth and Mireya Reith both expressed interest in getting information about a “third way” between total takeover and doing nothing — the state taking over the six schools: Baseline, Cloverdale, Henderson, Hall, Fair and McClellan. He acknowledged that funding streams and other aspects of administration could make that complicated. Board member Dianne Zook gave lengthy remarks about the district’s failure of all its 25,0000 students and said moving quickly was important. She said defenders of the district had used “racism, white flight, charters, ideology” as an excuse. “We have been asked to do something and do something quickly.”
Zook said she was appalled to hear a high school principal say he’d paid financial incentives for attendance by teachers. Board member Alice Mahony pointed out later that such incentives were a common budget item for school districts around the state. Zook said she hoped board members would be ready to make a “bold decision” Jan. 28.
The Board voted following concluding remarks from John Walker and also from School Board member Dianne Curry, who emphasized the poverty among the Little Rock students that complicates education.
Walker noted that the standard of academic distress had been changed last year to 50 percent below proficient test scores from 75 percent below basic performance and it was unreasonable to expect a district to “flip” achievement in nine months.
He pointed criticism at Board member Leslie Fisken’s sole refusal to join the other six board members in defending the district’s improvement plan. He called her a “lone, disgruntled school board member who no longer has her way.”
He said racial motives were behind the move to take over the school district. It has roots in the chamber’s concerted effort in 2006 to elect a “white lady” over school board member Micheal Daugherty to “secure a board majority.”
“We beat that back,” Walker said. The whole power structure backed Daugherty’s opponent, he said. “They lost. Now they sulk.” They are just waiting, he said, so they can “reclaim their rule” and continue the sort of achievement seen under John Riggs, a sarcastic reference it seemed. Black students have actually made some small gains over the years, if insufficient.
Walker aimed criticism, too, at Dexter Suggs, the superintendent. He said Suggs couldn’t fire and hire by “whim or caprice.” He said the law required a reason for personnel action, including notice and an improvement plan. It also requires posting job openings. “He can’t arbitrarily hire or fire,” Walker said. He alleged Suggs frequently ignored the law in personnel decisions.
Walker said a previous superintendent fired by the new Board majority, Roy Brooks, also had been “touted as a savior by the power structure.” He noted that Brooks was then hired at the eStem charter school (of which Education Board member Vickie Saviers was a founder) and “didn’t last six months there.” He’s had a checkered employment history since, but the same people who touted Brooks now are convinced that Suggs is the answer. “It’s for the same reason,” he said. “He supports their agenda.” That agenda, he says, is creating new schools for the higher income predominantly white parts of West Little Rock, to the detriment of inner city schools and underperforming black children.
Walker noted, too, the irony of state Education Department criticism that the district was trying to do too much. He suggested the state should work with the district on tailoring remedies, but he said it shouldn’t take over governance. He suggested it would invite a return to court. The Constitution still provides equal protection and due process, said Walker. He noted that there are other districts in Arkansas with schools in academic distress that haven’t been targeted for takeover.
Board chair Sam Ledbetter cut Curry short for repeating a statement others had made — that no takeover effort had been mounted over shortcomings when whites ruled the board. Ledbetter also closed the agenda item with a defense of the School District and its employees making goodfaith efforts to educate children. He directed remarks at Walker when he said that there were schools other than those in majority white areas that were succeeding with minority and low-income students.