As of approximately 3:30 p.m. today, the Little Rock School District’s locally elected board is no more. The State Board of Education voted to retain Superintendent Dexter Suggs as part of the same 5-4 split decision by which it dissolved local control and seized the reins of the district. After the vote was cast, Chairman Sam Ledbetter called now-interim Superintendent Suggs to the podium for a few words.
It was a surreal scene — most of the audience, which was packed overwhelmingly with community voices against takeover, was emptying out of the room, their disappointment and anger palpable. Suggs was left by himself to nod assents to Ledbetter’s calls for renewal and reconciliation.
“We want this to be a new day, a new path forward and a successful path forward,” said the chair to the superintendent. “We want to return this district to local control and to the community as a successful district as soon as we can, and we’re counting on you to help us get there.”
The chain of command for the district is now as follows: Suggs reports to Education Commissioner Tony Wood, who serves at the pleasure of Gov. Asa Hutchinson. (Wood was appointed by former-Gov. Mike Beebe last year.) That’s important, because Woods is widely expected to step down from his post atop the Arkansas Department of Education (ADE) sometime later this year, meaning ultimate control of decision making in the district will likely soon rest in the hands of some new, as yet unknown Hutchinson appointee.
In the meantime, Wood explained to me after the meeting, governance of the district and oversight of the superintendent is vested in him. “In essence, I serve in the capacity of a [school] board,” he said.
But for how long? In the Pulaski County Special School District, which was taken over by the state in 2011 and often cited as a relative success story by takeover advocates, widely respected veteran superintendent Jerry Guess was handpicked to turn things around. Can Suggs, who never occupied the chief executive role in a district before becoming LRSD superintendent just 18 months ago, really lead the district through the treacherous waters ahead?
State board member Mireya Reith, who voted against takeover, said to the board after the big vote, “I’ve heard from so many teachers and families not just concern with the [LRSD] board but with Superintendent Suggs as well. … I think there needs to be some sort of conversation about leadership, whether he’s in or not.” She said there should be an evaluation process.
I asked Vicki Saviers, the state board member who made the motion for takeover, why retaining Suggs was part of the package. She said it was to minimize disruption to the district.
When asked why she didn’t support the compromise solution offered by her colleague Jay Barth — which gave the local board a chance to turn things around under shared governance with the state, while retaining the threat of a takeover — Saviers said, “I surely understand where Jay Barth is coming from, but it’s just the fact that we’ve had memorandums of understanding with the district in the past and it’s not been successful … I just feel like time is critical here.”
Ledbetter, who cast the deciding vote for takeover, said Suggs was staying for the sake of continuity, and that “however long commissioner [Wood] decides he should be in that position, that would be his decision.” As for Barth’s proposed compromise, Ledbetter said that he felt full takeover provided a “cleaner” governance structure than “to have another layer of management between the board and the ADE and the local district.”
When asked by a reporter how citizens should stay involved with the district now that their democratically elected school board has been dissolved, Ledbetter encouraged the public to hold the Department of Education accountable. “We’re here as public servants. The leadership of the schools – the superintendent, the principals, the administration, serve as public servants. And the ADE staff all serves as public servants – they may not be elected, but they are professional educators who are tasked with a job, and they should be held accountable to do the job that they are tasked with.”
(As to accountability and serving the public, I will say this: After the meeting, I asked Suggs if I could ask him a few questions. He brusquely said, “No” and turned away without making eye contact. He wouldn’t speak to other reporters, either.)
Ledbetter and Wood, in closing remarks at the end of the meeting, stressed that the change in governance shouldn’t disrupt the operations of the schools themselves. “The buses will run, lunch will be served and children will learn,” Wood told the emptying room. “We can use the semantics of state takeover or whatever, but fundamentally, this is about governance. School will go on successfully.”
Tomorrow, I’ll have reactions from members of the former LRSD board and others.