State Board of Education member Jay Barth of Little Rock has put an item on the April 13 meeting of the Board that relates to state control of the Little Rock School District.
He told me today that he had hoped to have a resolution ready for the Board to schedule a return of local control next year, with election of a new school board in May 2018.
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But it appears an agreement between the important parties — meaning Education Commissioner Johnny Key and Gov. Asa Hutchinson — isn’t likely, at least by next week.
If that’s the case, Barth said he’s undecided at this point whether to go ahead and push for a vote; merely have a discussion, or simply pull the item.
“I believe that the community needed more clarity about the future of the district going into the tax election May 9. I think that vote is important. I was hopeful the state Board could use its independent authority to create more clarity about the future. I had conversations with the commissioner and governor’s office about that. But it’s clear that kind of clarity is not going to be agreeable to them. And so I’m not sure what I’m going to do now.” He said he knew enough about vote counting to anticipate it would be difficult for him to succeed without support from the governor’s office.
Barth said there’d been some room to negotiate terms of the district’s return to local control, such as a phase-in of board powers. But the governor apparently wasn’t ready to lock into a fixed agreement.
Education Commissioner Key was picked by Hutchinson to lead the state department, though he was a senator who lacked formal education training. He has functioned as the school board since the state Board voted to oust the school board in January 2015
Barth’s item appeared on the agenda late Monday afternoon. It noted only that Barth had indicated at a March 9 board meeting that he intended to submit an action item for April and that he had submitted it March 24. The agenda item notes only, without any related documents or explanation:
By majority vote on January 28, 2015, the State Board removed the local school board. In the absence of the board of directors, the State Board directed the Commissioner to assume all authority of the board of directors as may be necessary for the day-to-day governance of the school district.
Presenter: Dr. Jay Barth
Barth wanted a “date certain” on transition to local control as a positive message to voters.
Barth (a Hendrix College professor who contributes a column on politics to the Arkansas Times) said he’d been working with Key on the proposal. By law, the commissioner can only recommend removal of a school district from academic distress (and thus its current control by the state) if ALL schools in the district are meeting testing proficiency standards. Three of the 48 in Little Rock don’t meet that standard currently, though recent legislation is changing the state’s assessment process.
Key ultimately answers to Hutchinson, who has appointed five of the nine members of the state Board.
When the state took over the district on a 5-4 vote two years ago, six of its 48 schools fell short of producing the required proficiency score by half of their students. Now, the number of lagging schools is down to three, each with some special problems (poverty, non-English-speakers).
Barth opposed the takeover in January 2015. The 5-4 vote was swung by a Little Rock voter, Sam Ledbetter, who said recently, in supporting charter school legislation Key fought, that he’d been betrayed by the state which has encouraged charter schools while in charge of Little Rock schools. Key hired Michael Poore as superintendent after firing the popular Baker Kurrus, who’d opposed the charter school expansion.
The decision to continue to resist local control — if that is the final outcome next week — has political implications of its own.
Key is asking school voters May 9 to approve an additional 14 years of 12.4 mills worth of taxes pledged to construction debt (though actually the majority goes to operations under a quirk of Arkansas school finance law). In sum, that’s $600 million in newly authorized taxes. The debts otherwise would be paid off by 2033. Key, through Superintendent Poore, says the refinancing will provide $160 million to build a new Southwest Little Rock high school and do other facilities work.
There’s resistance. Sen. Joyce Elliott, who represents a big part of the district and many of its black voters, has announced her opposition. Former School Board member Jim Ross is among those in a coalition working against the tax. Meanwhile, some of the same white business establishment/chamber of commerce forces that worked to abolish the school board has already begun a campaign in support of the tax.
None disputes the district has needs, but many lack trust in Key. He’s favored continued charter school expansion in Little Rock and opposed several bills during the recent legislative session that had been advocated by school district supporters to make public schools and charter schools operate under similar rules.
In addition to resistance in the black community — because it’s widely perceived that majority black school board control fed the Chamber of Commerce-led campaign to abolish the board — state control has produced unhappiness elsewhere. This is particularly true in neighborhoods that continue to hold pockets of public school support and tend to be higher-participation school voters, particularly in Hillcrest and the Heights. Those neighborhoods have spawned groups fighting for return of local control.
Those neighborhoods were further antagonized by Key’s decision to fire Kurrus. Another angle in the current issue: former Little Rock School Board member, Leslie Fisken, who was at odds with the former board’s black majority, ultimately became a supporter of state takeover and now has a job in Gov. Hutchinson’s office. She’s no friend of local control.
A promise of a school board election next year could assuage disaffected voters. This week’s development — the governor’s resistance to local control — looks to me like another reason for many voters not to trust Johnny Key with their money.
There is resistance to local control from the likes of Gary Newton, who’s paid a six-figure salary by the Walton fortune to advocate their school agenda through a political nonprofit, Arkansas Learns. He favored the state takeover, works in the Walton interests for charter schools and other ideas damaging to conventional public schools and spent heavily to install board members friendly to the Walton agenda when the Pulaski County Special School District got its school board back. The Walton philosophy seems to favor schools run by singular authorities, including private companies, not elected school boards. But if they can’t get that, they know from long and varied experience how to influence the next best thing — friendly law/rule/policy makers.
A May 2018 school board election date would have been one thing to encourage Newton and Hutchinson. It will be a primary election day in Arkansas. Under new law, that’s when school elections must be held, or else in November, rather than in September for schools alone. Turnout will be higher. More money will be spent. That favors the Waltons and those who fear of a return to a similar power structure on the board could mean a movement to fire Poore.
In short: seeking a positive signal for Little Rock School District supporters, Jay Barth seems likely to fall short because the governor won’t go along. How will you vote May 9 if the governor remains in control of Little Rock schools?