Little Rock School Board President Greg Adams has distributed a response to a widely circulated message from the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce urging a state takeover of the Little Rock School District. The state Board of Education takes up the issue Wednesday.
Numbers can be used for just about any purpose, as Adams demonstrates in several cases on the jump. He resists some points I might have made The business community that helped ghettoize the city with housing and planning policies stood idly when white majority school boards failed to deliver. Too many blame the Little Rock School District for societal ills. The schools in distress are all-minority and all-poor, a demographic that has proven resistant to dramatic education advancement just about everywhere in America. But those just sound like excuses and Adams emphasizes positives.
I know many in the business community have spent long years in deep study of the district and some of them even have entrusted their children to the schools. Many have concluded after long and fraught effort — I think of people I admire like former School Board member Baker Kurrus and former Sen. Jim Argue and businessman Gary Smith — that massive change is necessary.
I’ve said before that I’m not without sympathy for this point of view. But I fear the agenda of the billionaires whose money is fueling a big part of this drive. The Waltons pay bitter LR school critic Gary Newton (a former Little Rock chamber employee whose aunt, Diane Zook, wife of the head off the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce sits on the state Board of Education) to pump bile daily about the LRSD. He concedes virtually nothing positive about the district, which has dozens of achieving schools, hundreds of dedicated teachers and thousands of achieving students. Would a state takeover be followed shortly by a Walton proposal to charterize the school district, as was done so disastrously in New Orleans?
I’d also like to remind Little Rock taxpayers that their city sales tax dollars are helping to pay the salaries of people at the Chamber to pump a steady diet of negative messaging about the Little Rock schools. (A lawsuit has finally put a stop to the city subsidy of political lobbying by the chamber against the interests of many.)
There ARE good schools in Little Rock. It IS a good place to live. Both schools and city need further improvement. But you can see why, when the taxpayer-subsidized chamber has nothing but bad things to say about the schools that somebody might prefer to try their luck in Cabot or Bryant.
Read on for Adams comments in response to the Chamber attack:
A Needed Response to a Chamber of Commerce email concerning the LRSD
This past week the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce distributed an email advocating for state takeover of the Little Rock School District (LRSD). In the email there were fourteen points or “facts” to help the reader better understand “the academic and fiscal crises facing the LRSD.” Disappointingly, some of these “facts” do more to distort the picture rather than to clarify the issues. Here are a few of the points made that deserve a more fair accounting in response:
2. In 2014, the desegregation settlement agreement mandated that over $37 million in State desegregation payments to LRSD would end after the 2017-18 school year. 82% of the LRSD’s total budget is spent on personnel.
Nowhere in this point or in the rest of the document is the LRSD given credit for initiating and facilitating the process for ending the desegregation settlement. Without the initiative and leadership of the LRSD through the Board and Superintendent Dr. Dexter Suggs, there would not have been a new desegregation settlement in 2014.
3. Instead of making appropriate budget reductions in preparation, the LRSD Board of Education voted to add an additional $6 million in district expenses. This makes fiscal distress even more likely in the near future.
The $6 million in additional expenses came as a result of binding arbitration in union negotiations and is not a figure that would have been recommended and approved otherwise. Despite this $6 million of unanticipated expense, an original projected budget deficit for the fiscal year of $3.2 million, and a purchase of land for potential new schools (outside the projected budget) at $4.5 million, the end-of-year district fund balance only decreased $7.5 (rather than $13.7 million) due to cost-savings efforts. A Budget Efficiency Advisory Committee, including representatives from local businesses and government, has been established to give recommendations to the Board in preparation for the coming loss of desegregation funding.
6. Six schools in the LRSD are in Academic Distress, based on three-year averages of less than 50% students proficient in Math and Literacy. In the past 10 years, students in these six schools have performed over 50% proficient only two times.
Comparing standardized test scores from the 2013-2014 school year to test scores from the 2004-05 school year, nearly all math and literacy scores were drastically improved, sometimes more than doubling or even tripling. Nevertheless, even with these significant improvements, the school test scores remained too low. In response, new leadership was put in place for each of the academic distress schools in the past three years including three new principals appointed by Dr. Suggs, and this leadership appears to have led to more improvements. In November, 2014, the Office of Education Policy at the University of Arkansas recognized both McClellan and Fair High Schools for “beating the odds” and making significant test score improvements while serving low-income communities. During the Jan. 7 ADE Academic Distress Committee meeting, Dr. Richard Wilde of the ADE remarked that “culture trumps strategy,” and both inside and outside school observers remark that the culture this year at Henderson Middle School is dramatically improved under new leadership. Although it is not yet enough, there has been progress made.
9. In the past 20 years, only one teacher has been fired by the board for poor performance.
This statement is significantly misleading. Not all teachers who are terminated appeal their terminations to the Board and there has been more than one teacher who did appeal to the Board in the past four years where the termination was upheld. In my four years on the Board, there has been one teacher who was terminated for incompetent teaching who appealed this termination to the Board. This occurred in the summer of 2014 and the Board upheld the termination. I take this is a positive sign that both this administration and Board are able and willing to terminate underperforming teachers when due process is followed and given.
14. Clearly, LRSD Board of Education governance is broken. As a result, our students, families, quality of life, and economy suffer from the dysfunction.
Here are some of the accomplishments of the present governance team—Board and Superintendent—in the past year and a half:
• Redesign and revitalization of Career-Technical Education attracting more LRSD students and students from outside LRSD.
• Implementation of a new 1:1 technology program for 4th and 5th graders.
• New desegregation settlement freeing the district to be more flexible and innovative in its programs and planning.
• Transformation of Forest Heights Middle School to a K-8 STEM Academy providing a one-of-a-kind innovative school in Arkansas and avoiding Forest Heights Middle School being placed on the list of Academic Distress Schools.
• Transformation of Geyer Springs Elementary to Geyer Springs Gifted and Talented Academy, another one-of-a-kind innovative school in Arkansas.
• Implementation of a new literacy program that reaches more children struggling with reading.
• Initiation of a planning process to reconfigure Hall High School for the 2016-17 school year. Hall High School is one of the district’s six schools listed in academic distress.
• Establishment of a Budget Efficiency Advisory Committee for budget recommendations for the coming two fiscal years.
• Revitalization of the Public Education Foundation.
• Completion of a district-wide facilities study.
• Unanimous Board approval of a district-wide facilities priority list of improvements and additions despite a long history of community division on these issues.
• Establishment of a Millage Campaign Steering Committee to help develop a finance plan for the facilities priority list and to help manage a successful millage campaign.
• Development and unanimous adoption of Board Governance Protocols.
• Board-initiated consultation and planned teamwork training for Board and Superintendent provided by the Arkansas School Boards Association.
It does not seem to me that the above list of accomplishments in less than two years’ time is that of a Board and governance team that is “clearly…broken.”
The overall public education goals for of the business community and the LRSD are basically the same: to have a system of consistently high quality schools in all levels and communities in the district for the good of students, families, quality of life and the economy. In many ways, both formal and informal, the business community and the LRSD have been and continue to be partners in this effort. With any complex issue such as public education, there can be diverse and strongly held views. For debate to be healthy and constructive, communication needs to be respectful, reasoned and honest—both in the boardroom and in the public square. We in the LRSD should welcome honest and fair criticism as it can help us improve and strengthen our efforts for children. Some of the criticisms in the Chamber email, however, fall short of the goal of fairness. Our publicly expressed goal for the Board and our governance team is to improve in our communications to enhance trust and collaboration. I would ask both our critics and our supporters to join us in this effort as the cause of public education needs our best efforts for the sake of our children and community.
Little Rock School Board
The views expressed above are my own and are not intended to represent the views of the Little Rock School Board or the Little Rock School District.