Sen. Joyce Elliott and citizen activists are raising the alarm about legislation that gives charter schools and charter school operators first call on leasing vacant school buildings.
Said Sen. Joyce Elliott:
Will you please help highlight how SB 308 directly targets school closings in LRSD? It deliberately excludes purchase or lease by charters not within a school district’s boundaries, which suggests it’s all about eStem and/or the Walton preference of occupant.
It even strikes the right of the Arkansas Better Chance [pre-K] program to have access to underutilized buildings.
Dr. Anika Whitfield, among those fighting to regain local control of the Little Rock School District, writes:
Mr. Kelsey Bailey, the CFO of the LRSD, and, Dr. Sadie Mitchell, the Associate Superintendent of Elementary Schools in the LRSD, both spoke on behalf of Superintendent Michael Poore, in his absence, at the Capitol View Neighborhood Association meeting last night. During the question and answer portion, after several residents expressed their disappointment in your decision to close our neighborhood schools, many of the neighbors expressed their great concern that the LRSD would sell or hand over our buildings, if children are displaced from their current schools, to charter school owners. It was brought to everyone’s attention that Senate Bill 308, if passed, the state would mandate any vacated schools to be leased to owners of charter schools. Both Mr. Bailey and Dr. Mitchell acknowledged that they were both aware of this piece of legislation and admitted that the LRSD administrators were aware if it as well.
Whitfield says Education Commissioner Johnny Key should rescind his decision to close Franklin, Woodruff and Wilson schools, particularly in light of the possibility they could be converted to charter schools that drain more students and tax dollars from the Little Rock School District.
She is right, of course. Yet the school district stands silent on the peril because it is controlled by Key, a long-time advocate of charter school expansion, including recent continuation of approval by the state of poorly performing operations.
Key refuses to speak in public about these issues or take press questions, though he is the functioning “school board” of the district and has the final say on Superintendent Michael Poore’s decisions. He made limited appearance yesterday on a radio talk show to talk about athletics in the district. They are selling a sports renaissance as a feel-good way to build voter support for approval of an additional half billion dollars in property taxes to pay for school construction and renovation.
There’s some intellectual dissonance in Johnny Key’s urgent call for more taxes in Little Rock to go to a district that says it can’t afford to keep valued neighborhood schools open, even as legislators — to the silence of Key and Poore so far — want to let charter schools get sweetheart deals to take over schools Key orders closed.
The Little Rock School District, with only three of 48 schools in academic distress, should be returned to local control. No additional taxes should be voted until there’s an assurance voters aren’t guaranteeing the district’s demolition by charter schools in facilities the taxpayers are financing.
Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, who nominally represents part of the city of Little Rock (mostly outside the Little Rock School District), is a sponsor of this charter-school enabling legislation, with company particularly from Northwest Arkansas, home to the Walton charter school junta. UPDATE: He said his interest was in preserving first call on a vacant school building in rural Paron, also in his Senate district, for potential charter school use.
The charterites have long complained they are hampered by a lack of construction funding. But if they can take over buildings constructed by Little Rock taxpayers, that problem is solved. In the wings is a renewal of legislation to allow privatization of the whole school district, for operation by private companies.
Johnny Key needs to stop talking about football and start talking in public about what he REALLY has in mind for the Little Rock School District, beginning with how he could defend allowing Franklin, Wilson and Woodruff to be taken over by charter school operators when he said they were too inefficient for LRSD to keep open.
PS: This legislation holds peril for North Little Rock as well. It has spent millions to consolidate and improve its facilities in the name of efficiency and performance. This law would allow a charter operator to swoop in and convert closed buildings.
UPDATE: Key has responded to Whitfield with a letter that falls well short of assuaging concerns. He won’t rescind his decision to close the schools.
I am very familiar with SB308, and it will not force LRSD to automatically turn Wilson, Hamilton, Franklin or Woodruff over to a charter school. The bill contains provisions through which school districts can designate facilities for alternative uses in the district’s master plan. I have directed Mr. Poore to update the LRSD Facilities Master Plan as necessary to reflect the repurposing of these facilities. Based on these facts, the decision will stand.
Key word is “automatically.” And the fact that if the district has no use for the buildings (and LRSD has expressed no ideas on the buildings it’s vacating) the first-call for charters still apply.