Today, Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen heard testimony from witnesses in the opening round of the lawsuit challenging the state Education Department’s takeover of the Little Rock School District.
The plaintiffs are asking Griffen for a preliminary injunction, which, if granted, would presumably reverse the January 28 decision of the State Board of Education to dissolve the local LRSD board and seize control of the district. The testimony lasted all day and will resume tomorrow at 10 a.m.
Today the plaintiffs’ witnesses included Chris Heller, the longtime Friday Firm attorney who’s served as LRSD counsel for decades; community activist Barclay Key; two LRSD teachers from J.A. Fair High School; and, former LRSD board members Jim Ross, Joy Springer and C.E. McAdoo. Three of those witnesses — Ross, McAdoo and Key — are also plaintiffs in the case.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs said they have five more witnesses tomorrow. The defense will have its own witnesses, perhaps overlapping with the plantiffs’. The witness list tomorrow will likely include State Board members, Education Commissioner Tony Wood and other Education Department staff, LRSD Superintendent Dexter Suggs and perhaps others.
Throughout today’s hearing, the audience waited to see if the Arkansas Supreme Court might step in and stop the proceedings. This morning, the defense’s lawyers filed an emergency petition with the higher court asking for an immediate stay of proceedings in Griffen’s courtroom, based on a sovereign immunity argument. The plaintiffs’ attorneys asked to break at 4:30 today to respond to that motion.
The testimony today by plaintiffs’ witnesses attempted to establish that “irreparable harm” was caused by the state takeover of the district.
The basis of Ross’ testimony was that the dissolution of the local board meant that he was “not able to perform the duties that I was elected to do.” His statements attempted to establish that the local LRSD board (which had only been elected a few months before it was dissolved by the state) had a good plan in place to address the deficiencies of the district. He also noted that Suggs and Dennis Glasgow, the LRSD employee responsible for curriculum and evaluation, have retained their jobs. Glasgow has worked at the district for 30 years yet has not been removed, Ross said.
In cross examination, the state’s attorney, Lori Freno, said that the local board’s plan for the district wouldn’t necessarily translate to improved student outcomes. “You have no way of knowing it would work, correct?” she asked.
“We have no way of knowing it wouldn’t,” Ross responded.
Springer’s testimony also folded in a further point: That former LRSD board members themselves have suffered “irreparable harm” to their reputations as a result of being removed from elected office. When people in the community ask her why the district was taken over, Springer said, she’s unable to provide a satisfactory answer.
“I don’t know the reasons for it — for the removal,” she said.
This is an important point because it goes to the heart of the question about whether the state acted arbitrarily in taking over the LRSD. Springer, Ross and others have said in the past that the State Board has not acted consistently in taking over districts. Indeed, other Arkansas districts with schools in “academic distress” have been allowed to stay under local control.
State Board members who voted for takeover have often cited the “dysfunction” of the local board as a motivating force behind the LRSD takeover, including its sometimes fraught relationship with Suggs. When asked by Freno whether the local LRSD board had been working cooperatively with the superintendent, Springer responded, “yes we were … the majority of things he brought before us, we approved.”
Barclay Key, a UALR professor of history, said that he’d suffered “irreparable harm” as parent of LRSD students, a participant in the democratic process and a resident of Little Rock.
“With the removal of these elected officals, people like me, voters like me, have no say in the Little Rock School District,” Key said.