Yesterday afternoon’s legislative hearing sponsored by state Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) was primarily intended to give an official venue for public statements on the latest upheaval in the Little Rock School District — the firing of superintendent Baker Kurrus by Education Commissioner Johnny Key. I had to leave before the session ended at 6 p.m., but the statements I heard were almost uniformly critical of Key, of the state takeover of the LRSD, or of both. The audience gallery in the Capitol’s Old Supreme Court was packed. Key was not in attendance.
Among the speakers were Jeff Grimmett, an 8th grade English teacher at Henderson Middle School who excoriated both the state Board of Education for having “dismantled a democratically elected, reform-minded, mostly black school board” and Key, for his “myopic and ham-handed leadership.” Natalie Massanelli, a teacher from Jefferson Elementary, said that when Kurrus “publicly opposed charters, he did what any responsible school leader should do — he defended us.” Removing the superintendent, she said, makes the LRSD less attractive to new teachers and less attractive to parents. Tracey-Ann Nelson, the executive director of the Arkansas Education Association, the teachers’ union, said “what is happening in Little Rock is a bellwether for education in Arkansas” and warned of schools being used as “political pawns.” And Morris Holmes, a former LRSD superintendent, told the crowd that Kurrus was hardly the first person to sound the alarm on the threat charter expansions pose to the LRSD; Chris Heller, an attorney for the LRSD, argued this case to the state board years ago, Holmes said, adding “the chickens have come home to roost.” (It’s widely assumed that Kurrus was fired because of his vocal opposition to charter expansions in Little Rock.)
But the most interesting comments came from Baker Kurrus himself, who’s made few public appearances since the news broke two weeks ago that his contract was not being renewed. At the request of Elliott and the other legislators, Kurrus briefly addressed the room and took questions from legislators. He made it clear that he won’t be actively fighting the commissioner’s decision to let him go, which was made with Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s approval.
“I won’t fight to keep this job, but I will fight for our school district,” Kurrus said, to applause from the audience. “I’m not looking for a fight. I’m looking for a way to sustain our students in a way that’s beneficial for all concerned … and that works for the long run for all of us in Little Rock.
“We don’t own this community — we didn’t inherit it from our parents, we’re borrowing it from our children. We owe it to them to make sure we do every single thing we can to sustain this community and create a system that works for everybody,” he said, drawing more applause.
Sen. Elliott asked Kurrus to comment on “where you are in determining whether you want to or wish to be a part of the Little Rock School District” in a capacity other than superintendent. This is a crucial question, as the governor and Key both have stated their desire to retain Kurrus in some role within the district even after he’s replaced by his successor, former Bentonville superintendent Mike Poore.
Kurrus said he wasn’t interested in taking a paid position with the district: “I don’t think that would be appropriate.” He said he’s still grappling with the question of playing some other official role. Significantly, he added that “I don’t want a role until I know where we are and have a sense of where we’re headed. If the policies are right — yes, I’m willing to play a role. … [But] I need indication about the policies and direction [of the district] before I sign up.”
In other words, Kurrus is ready and willing to keep working with the LRSD, but only if he’s convinced it’s being steered in the right direction by its leadership — which right now consists of Key (and soon, Poore). Nonetheless, Kurrus also stressed that he’s had a “wonderful working relationship with the commissioner” in the past. He’s only met with Poore once, he said, but added that he was “certainly an easy guy for me to talk to.” Kurrus will be meeting with both men again later this week, he said.
Sen. Linda Chesterfield (D-Little Rock) asked Kurrus if he’d be willing to continue serving as superintendent “if the commissioner and the governor were to walk back” the decision to replace him. “I respect the decision. And with that in mind, I haven’t pondered the future from that point of view,” he told the senator. “You can’t unring a bell. It’s hard to work for people who don’t want you to work for them.”
Chesterfield also asked Kurrus about whether he was able to get a clear answer from Mike Poore on the question of charter schools. Kurrus reiterated that he’s had limited conversations with Poore thus far, and that more would be happening soon. But he reminded the legislators that a superintendent is an executive, not a policymaker. (With the district’s normal policymaking body currently nonexistent — the local school board was dissolved with the state takeover — policy is now determined solely by Key, the education commissioner.) What are the policies for the district moving forward, Kurrus asked rhetorically: “Do we want strong traditional public schools and charter schools with a limited purpose … or do we think it’s productive to have large charter systems that essentially act as alternative channels paid for by the state? That’s the question.”
Rep. Clarke Tucker (D-Little Rock) asked Kurrus what citizens in Little Rock can do to be more engaged in the school district. It’s a question many are asking now, Tucker said, considering the sense of disfranchisement created by the superintendent’s firing.
“You don’t abandon an institution if it does things you don’t like,” Kurrus replied. “You have to figure out how to make it better. … Don’t condition your support based on how the wind’s blowing.” He also added a restrained critique of the way this change in leadership has played out, but asked the community to help mitigate the disruption it’s created: “The thing that makes me most upset is that a school district’s stock in trade is stability. … You need that commitment from whoever sits in the chair, but you also need that from our community.”
Rep. Michael John Gray (D-Augusta), the House Minority Leader, asked Kurrus whether there are statewide lessons about charter schools to be drawn from this episode. Kurrus reiterated some of the arguments he made in March, when he attempted to convince the state Board of Education to deny the expansion plans of two charter operators in Little Rock: That charters tend to draw away students who are higher performing, leaving traditional districts with higher concentrations of students from poor households and with greater needs and greater academic deficiencies. Here, Kurrus left no doubt that he and Key were on opposite sides of the charter school issue.
“I thought charters were designed to be smaller, site-based schools that were going to receive waivers from traditional public requirements in order to try to reach the kids of greatest needs. … That is not the case now, or at least that’s not the situation in our city.
“But — we argued that, we lost, I’ve shaken Johnny Key’s hand … and we moved on,” he said.
Other Little Rock legislators in attendance included Reps. Warwick Sabin, Charles Blake, Jim Sorvillo, Charles Armstrong, John Walker and Fred Love. All are Democrats except Sorvillo, who is a Republican. A handful of other representatives from outside Little Rock were also at the hearing: Reps. Vivian Flowers (D-Pine Bluff), Sheila Lampkin (D-Monticello), David Fielding (D-Magnolia) and Monte Hodges (D-Blytheville).