At its regularly scheduled meeting tonight, the Little Rock School District board approved a major facilities plan for the LRSD, including moving forward with a campaign to convince voters to approve a millage to fund $375 million in new construction and overhauls of existing buildings.
It’s a big step forward for the school board, which found itself divided on the issue upon receiving an earlier version of the facilities plan from a consulting group last summer. (That original plan differs significantly from the one the board approved tonight, not least in its scope: The consultants originally recommended over $500 million in construction.) Tonight’s vote was a demonstration of the board working with Superintendent Dexter Suggs to make major changes in the district.
Or at least the board hopes that’s how the vote will be received by the community and, especially, the State Board of Education, which is currently pondering a takeover of the LRSD and dissolution of the local board. LRSD officials and board members will appear before the state board next Wednesday, Jan. 28, for a decision on state intervention.
Among other things (see below), the facilities plan approved tonight calls for building a new high school in Southwest Little Rock, which would replace the existing McClellan High, and building a new middle school in West Little Rock. It’s an important symbolic step. The district’s historic inability to reconcile the wants of its whiter and more affluent regions (embodied today by WLR) with the needs of its poorer neighborhoods (including Southwest) goes to the heart of conflict within the LRSD.
Last fall, Attorney John Walker condemned the idea of building any new school in WLR, arguing that the district’s first priority must be addressing the academic deficiencies of disadvantaged students. Meanwhile, some WLR parents were unhappy there were no plans to build a new high school in their part of the city as well as a middle school. (It’ll be interesting to see how both sides react to tonight’s news, but I’ll be surprised if any takeover advocates are swayed from their position.)
Tonight, board vice president Joy Springer made the motion to approve the $375 million plan. One point in her motion specified that “construction of a southwest high school shall be the district’s first priority. Upon a successful millage, the district shall simultaneously authorize construction of a southwest Little Rock high school and a west Little Rock middle school. … If for some reason the southwest Little Rock’s school construction is delayed, the west Little Rock school construction shall also be delayed pending resolution of the reasons for delay.” Her motion also stated that the bond issue will be placed before voters no later than Feb. 16, 2016, and laid out other guiding principles for the facilities plan, including a commitment to avoid segregated schools.
Leslie Fisken said she, “had some reservations about … prioritizing one part of town over others” but still said she supported the plan “one hundred percent.” Fisken has recently been the lone “no” vote against the rest of the board, speaking out about the body’s “dysfunction” so insistently that many have concluded she’s tacitly supporting takeover. Tonight, though, she voted yes.
Springer said after the meeting that construction of the WLR school is tied to progress on the Southwest school because voters in her zone — which encompasses much of downtown and the predominately African-American neighborhoods south of I-630 —f elt that “promises were not kept to them the last time they voted for a millage campaign.” She said it’s essential to make sure schools on the Southwest side of town aren’t neglected, as they have been in the past. “This way, everybody will get a piece of the pie,” she explained.
“I’m incredibly encouraged by this,” said board president Greg Adams. He said it was “meaningful and symbolic to do both West Little Rock and Southwest at the same time.” Jim Ross agreed: “This unifies our city east and west. It shows our dedication to Dr. Suggs and his agenda, and it’s the first large step towards building trust with him.”
I asked Adams after the meeting whether the evidently good relations between the board and Suggs in recent weeks could really be expected to last, should the state not take over the LRSD. He said the state board should give the LRSD a chance. “I do think the pressure we’re under is making us focus,” he acknowledged, “but I think the desire to work together is a sincere desire … we have some momentum to build on this.”
The facilities plan also calls for the replacement of David O. Dodd Elementary, and the conversion of McClellan’s current building to a middle school, which would replace Cloverdale Middle. “Portables” (think trailers), which are used in many overcrowded campuses in the LRSD, would be removed district-wide and replaced with permanent additions where needed. Student activity centers would be built in several places, air conditioning would be installed in all gyms and kitchens, and major improvements would be made to athletics facilities.