We’re having some technical difficulties with the blog today, and a previous version of this story was lost earlier this afternoon. Apologies, everyone.
At a press conference this afternoon, Education Commissioner Johnny Key announced that he is hiring Baker Kurrus to be the new superintendent of the Little Rock School District. Kurrus will officially begin tomorrow, Key said.
Because Kurrus lacks the qualifications traditionally necessary to be a superintendent (he doesn’t hold a higher degree in education), the decision required a vote of the State Board of Education to waive a law regarding administrator requirements in a special meeting announced only late yesterday afternoon.
“I’ve been asked many times about a national search, and my response to that was, we need someone that can bring Arkansas solutions and Little Rock solutions to the Little Rock School District. That means we need someone who has Little Rock roots and Little Rock connections,” Key said today. “I can think of no one better … than Mr. Baker Kurrus.”
A lawyer and businessman, Kurrus formerly served on the Little Rock School Board for 12 years, ending in 2010. After the state took control of the LRSD in January, he was appointed by then-Education Commissioner Tony Wood to head an advisory committee on district finances.
Kurrus will be paid $150,000 yearly in his role as superintendent. That’s significantly less than the $200,000 earned by his predecessor in the district’s executive role, Dexter Suggs, who resigned from the post two weeks ago amid allegations that he had plagiarized portions of his doctoral dissertation.
Kurrus acknowledged that he’s “not a superintendent” in the traditional sense, but said that his long history with the district (including as a parent), his experience in the business world and his ability to work with others would allow him to lead. He also pointed out — fairly enough — that national searches for superintendents haven’t worked out so well for the LRSD in the past.
“If you hire a hero … and they blow into our town, they just havent’ been that successful. And you can blame them, you can blame us — I’m not blaming anybody. I’m just saying that’s the way it’s been. The governor and Mr. Key decided to do something different, but it’s going to be inclusive.”
“I know I’m not a superintendent,” he emphasized again.
It’s unclear what role Governor Asa Hutchinson played in this decision, but he was undoubtedly consulted. A press release from the LRSD following the announcement included a statement from the governor expressing confidence in Kurrus.
Hutchinson said, “He’s served on the Little Rock School Board, he’s shown a passion for education, he understands the issues and, in sending his children to public schools, he’s been personally invested in the district. Baker always has been honest and determined in his approach to make the Little Rock School District a success and do right by the children of central Arkansas. We need Baker Kurrus’ experience and knowledge at this time, and we are grateful to him for taking on this challenge.”
Immediately before the announcement, the State Board of Education voted 7-0 to approve a waiver to the state law governing school district administrator requirements. One member of the nine-person board was not present (Joe Black) and chairman Sam Ledbetter did not vote.
Although the state board signaled their approval of Kurrus as a whole, the discussion among members reflected the contentiousness that’s marked the takeover of the LRSD. Board member Alice Mahoney attempted to offer a substitute motion that would allow Kurrus to serve as superintendent yet also reinstate the now-defunct elected local school board in some capacity, as “a partner.” It was not entirely clear what powers the local board would have in relation to the Key (after a state takeover of a district, the Education Commissioner effectively assumes the powers normally held by the local board).
At that, Kurrus spoke up, saying he thought it would be a bad idea to reinstate the former board because it would then be unclear who his boss would be, effectively. The motion failed, 2-5.
Board member Jay Barth (who is a columnist for the Times) raised questions about whether the waiver would apply only to the appointment of Kurrus, or if it could be used in the future to appoint a different candidate should the Education Commissioner decide to appoint a new person. Key assured the state board that the waiver would apply only to Kurrus, and the motion was amended to establish that Key must return to request a new waiver should appointment of a different person be required who similarly fell short of the statutory qualifications.
Significantly, the teachers’ union seems to be supportive of the choice. In a brief statement, Little Rock Education Association President Cathy Koehler said, “Baker Kurrus has consistently demonstrated his commitment to all students in the Little Rock School District … The [LREA] looks forward to working with Mr. Kurrus”
Kurrus will replace Interim Superintendent Marvin Burton, a deputy administrator who was appointed as district head after Suggs’ resignation. At today’s press conference, Kurrus stressed that he would work closely with Burton and other veteran administrators in the LRSD. He said he’d begin meeting with senior district staff beginning this afternoon. He also emphasized his belief that the district has the quality teachers it needs to excel — a statement that runs subtly counter to the often-repeated narrative that the LRSD’s troubles are caused by bad classroom teachers — and cited concerns about the exceedingly low morale among a teacher corps battered by a steady stream of bad news from the district.
“What’s really going to make the difference … is fully empowered teachers,” Kurrus said. “Those teachers are there. The question is how do we give them the leadership, the empowerment and the energy [to] reach the community … We’ve got great teachers in this school district … I’m more worried about morale and team building.”