Although the Little Rock School District announced a list of potential school closures earlier this month, Superintendent Mike Poore has said the district won’t make a definite decision until January in regards to which campuses, if any, will actually be shuttered next school year. In the meantime, the LRSD has been soliciting community input about its plans. The potential changes include closing Carver Magnet, Franklin and Wilson elementaries, moving Hamilton Learning Academy (an alternative school) to another site, and closing Woodruff Early Childhood Center.
However, Poore confirmed today, the district is already in discussions about possible future plans for the buildings on the list. There’s been speculation recently that the Franklin Elementary building specifically is of interest to Watershed Human & Community Development Agency, the local nonprofit headed by Rev. Hezekiah Stewart. Watershed currently operates in the former Gillam school building near the Granite Mountain community. (That school has been closed for decades.)
When I asked Poore whether he’d talked to anyone at Watershed about making use of the Franklin building, he first noted that it was one of two sites on the list that doesn’t have a clear repurposing recommendation already (Woodruff is the other). “So, are there discussions that are occurring regarding options and opportunities for all of our buildings? Yes, absolutely,” the superintendent said. “We’re trying to figure out … what makes sense.”
Poore emphasized again that neither the closures themselves nor the facilities’ future use is determined yet. If the district does indeed determine in January that buildings should close, he said, it will then have “another phase” of input-gathering to determine how to repurpose them. He cited a family in Franklin’s attendance zone he’s spoken to who’s provided recommendations in hopes of avoiding a dip in the value of their home. “They hope it doesn’t close, but if it does, they say, ‘please take these things into account in terms of repurposing.'”
Still, Poore made it clear the district is also investigating its options ahead of time. “My experience is if you do move forward with school closures, the quicker you can move forward with repurposing the better,” he said. (Poore has spoken before of the painful process of presiding over school closures in a Colorado district which he led previously.)
Because the Little Rock School District has been taken over by the state, final authority regarding matters of district policy — like school closures — rests with state Education Commissioner Johnny Key. Normally, a locally elected school board would fill that role, but the LRSD board was dissolved by the Jan. 2015 takeover.
Rev. Stewart was unavailable for comment, but Carla Wright, the fiscal officer at Watershed, said she was not aware of any plans regarding the Franklin building at the moment.
City Manager Bruce Moore confirmed that he’s spoken with Poore about the city’s role in the process if some buildings are repurposed into non-educational facilities. “Depending on what the ultimate purpose of the building would be, we would have to look at it from a zoning perspective. … Again, not to speculate what might become of it, but if it is some type of nonprofit facility … we would have to look at it.” Moore said the superintendent did not go into specific details about such future use during their conversation.