Here’s a sincere question: Why does the state Education Department continue to avoid community outreach when it comes to making major decisions about the Little Rock School District?
I ask this in the context of Thursday’s PTA meeting at Rockefeller Elementary, in which LRSD Superintendent Baker Kurrus and Assistant Superintendent Marvin Burton won applause from a crowd of parents and teachers for announcing that unpopular plans to reorganize that school would not be moving forward after all. The administrators struck just the sort of conciliatory and inclusive tone that’s needed in a district riven by mistrust.
But there’s reason for skepticism — not necessarily because of Kurrus himself, but because of how he came into the job. On Tuesday, State Education Commissioner Johnny Key hired Kurrus as superintendent with virtually no prior notice. Although Kurrus has been intimately involved in the district for decades, he has no professional background in education, which meant the hiring required a wavier of rule and statute from the State Board of Education. This was accomplished at a special meeting of the state board that was announced barely 24 hours in advance, and with no evident solicitation of input from anyone in the community.
State Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) said it well in a Facebook post earlier this week: “When something happens that quickly, you know it’s a done deal that’s been determined by, in this case, people with power and privilege — privilege so normal to those with such standing, it never occurred to them that just maybe it would have been a good idea if there had been more transparency and some meaningful inclusion of the community south of I-630 before simply deciding who would be the next superintendent of LRSD. Having good intentions does not excuse exclusion of those not a routine part of the power circle.”
As a former teacher, Elliott said she was also disturbed by how blithely the Education Department cast aside the requirement that a superintendent be an educator — much as the legislature did when it changed statute to allow Key himself to serve as Education Commissioner.
When I spoke to Elliott yesterday, she told me she’s not categorically opposed to Kurrus. “If we were going to choose somebody who is an uncredentialed person, I think he’s probably the best choice we could have made,” she said. “I don’t question that Baker Kurrus is a good person and committed to the city and the school district. He spent 12 years on the [local LRSD] board; you don’t do that without being committed to things being better.”
But, she continued, “what I worry about is whether or not we understand that, no matter how difficult it is no matter how messy it is, we’ve got to have some community engagement, and from folks who don’t traditionally have a seat at the table of power. … We can’t have a messiah attitude about knowing what’s best for people without including them.”
Sam Ledbetter, chairman of the State Board of Education, said Key made the right choice in hiring Kurrus to run the district. “I don’t know how you make hiring decisions by committee … and how you know which segment of the community to go to and get their blessing,” he said. “Part of having responsibility is making decisions on personnel, and … the law gives the responsibility to Johnny Key.”
Ledbetter said it was “a fair point” that no public input was solicited about Kurrus, but added that state takeovers of other school districts — such as in the Pulaski County Special School District — have proceeded in a similar manner.
“I understand the feeling of disenfranchisement that exists [in Little Rock],” Ledbetter said, “but I also have the frustration of, where was everyone when these schools languished? When these schools were not meeting their targets for improvements, going back to 2004, 2005, 2006?
“All I was seeing was a school board that was essentially replacing superintendents and fighting among themselves … and the community being pretty complacent about what was going on. … We have had schools that have chronically under-performed for over a decade … and I haven’t seen the outrage.”
Ledbetter expressed great respect for Elliott; both Democrats, they served together in the state legislature in the 2000s, and Ledbetter said they were “allies on almost everything.” He noted that among the policy issues they cooperated on at the time was a 2003 omnibus education bill that articulated the state’s responsibility for educating all kids in the state and gave it the authority to take over districts to achieve that mandate when necessary. At that time, the rallying cry of ‘local control’ was coming primarily from small, rural districts. “Rural legislators back in 2003 …. said local control was sacrosanct,” he remembered.
As the tie-breaking vote on the state board, Ledbetter continues to be a focal point of anger for those who feel the district takeover was unjust. Around noon today, a small group of activists gathered in the rain at the Department of Education to protest the takeover, including several members of the former school board — Jim Ross, Joy Springer and Diane Curry — and attorney John Walker. Among the chants: “Your school district could be next,” and “Ledbetter is a traitor.”
In a printed statement, Walker expressed opposition to the takeover in stark terms: “Since 1954, the state of Arkansas has actively opposed real integration and desegregation of Little Rock and other Arkansas schools. It has done it directly, indirectly and in a deceitful manner. It has kept people from actually learning together and it has caused not only the segregation of our schools but the segregation of our community.
“Our presence here today is an indication of our determination to keep this matter alive and to continue the effort to ensure that the children we represent have a future of promise and meaningful expectation. We will not tolerate the closing of schools located in lower- and middle-class areas while building them in the areas where the state has told people to go to be ensured that they can have segregated schools; segregated, superior facilities; and insulation from the people who do not have.”
I asked Walker after the protest whether he could live with the choice of Kurrus as superintendent. “We have to live with Baker Kurrus for now,” he replied, “but he is not a superintendent.”