The state Board of Education today held a general conversation about the Little Rock School District, but took no action toward returning local control to the state-run district. Nor did it give a hint of when that might happen, despite pleas that it do so.
As we reported earlier, Board member Jay Barth of Little Rock had hoped to have the Board consider a resolution to vote on a return to local control in elections in May 2017. Gov. Asa Hutchinson nixed the idea. He controls a majority of the Board.
Barth opened the subject gingerly. He said there was division over the state takeover more than two years ago (he was on the losing side of a 5-4 vote) and that division had only grown since, as evidenced in the split on a coming vote May 9 on extending 12.4 debt mills for 14 years at a cost to taxpayers of more than $600 million.
“We know divided communities cannot provide foundation for great schools,” Barth said.
Barth said the board had authority by law to consider a plan for return of control. He said the new accountability legislation only enhanced the board’s flexibility.
“As you all know, we were not able to reach consensus on this,” he said, though he said he’d had good conversations with Key. He said the ability to reach consensus on the board was hampered by the open meetings law, which prevents individual conversations about business among members except in open session.
Key was asked to speak and he mostly gave a technical account of the new accountability law, a process that by his telling envisions no recommendation for changes in the district’s status until sometime in the 2017-18 school year. He also said he was “absolutely committed” to a return to local control, and he assured those who’ve raised questions that money raised in a bond election, if approved, would be spent “as intended.” But the ballot issue makes no specific rules on the spending. Also, the bond millage provides $26 million in annual operational spending for Key. He gave no indication of a potential date for return of local control He didn’t mention, nor was he asked, about his advocacy for continuing expansion of charter schools in the Little Rock School District.
Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) was among those who spoke. She raised again objections to closure of schools by Key in African-American neighborhoods as an example of what happens to a district “without representation.” She recounted opposition from the state Department of Education that emerged the night before her Senate-passed bill was due for consideration in the House. It would have eased the state board’s ability to move to return local control to a district.
She said the Board had an “awesome” authority and it should use it to “let this District know when it is going to be made whole.” Meeting after meeting passes with nothing that reveals when the department intends to return local control, she said. “It is not fair. It is not right.” She said no one had given a defensible reason for state control of a district where 45 of 48 schools were not in academic distress.
She said the Board didn’t have to wait until August when the new law takes effect to act.
State Rep. Clarke Tucker (D-Little Rock), whose district covers a portion of the school district, said he wanted to let the board know the importance of the issue to 30,000 people in his district. His constituents are “frustrated,” he said. He urged the board to have a “sense of urgency.” He said if the vote were today on local control, as it was two years ago, the answer would be a “resounding no,” given the many signs of improvement in the district. He said a “hard plan” with specific dates would give people in the district a better feeling about accountability.
“When you are taking away democracy, you need to act with a sense of urgency,” he said.
Dr. Ginny Blankenship, a parent of a Little Rock kindergarten student, said the state takeover had been a wakeup call for the community. She said the district was making progress. But she objected to using a standardized test as a sole test for academic distress. She referred particularly to Hall High School, full of children from around the world who aren’t native English speakers. This punishes the whole school district, she said. She said she heard repeatedly at the Capitol about local control and parents’ rights, both of which have been taken away in Little Rock. She said the animosity and distrust in the district was the worst she’d seen in 18 years in working in education. “Many Little Rock voters really want to support this supposed bond refinance … But so many people do not know whom to trust any more. And I fear it will fail if you do not take action today.” She urged a return to local control and asked for assurances the money from the bond refinance will be used as promised.
Board Chair Mireya Reith said she was “heartbroken” at many levels, particularly at the loss of faith in the state board. She became emotional as she talked of being a child of immigrants, born on the fourth of July, and spoke of frustration about being not able to offer more to people in the district. She said she feared her name is going to be forever tied to a decision linked to a continuation of “structural racism” in Little Rock. She said decisions were being made without an understanding of what it means to have to fight for a vote. She noted the lack of a crowd at today’s meeting, unlike many meetings in the past about the district.”They have lost that much hope in us. They don’t even bother showing up.”
She challenged the board to come up today with “something we could offer.” She said the board could do more than a “broad state timeline,” such as Key outlined. She invoked the coming 60th anniversary of the Little Rock school crisis. It is still the state’s only marker in the Museum of African-American History, she noted. “We are better than that,” she said. She credited good hearts to other board members, but “folks don’t trust us.”
“Let’s not walk away without offering something to Little Rock, please,” said Reith.
Board member Diane Zook defended Key’s work. And she defended the process that led to the state takeover. “There was no racism or any other sinister motive intended,” she said. She noted black board members and members from the 2nd District had voted for the takeover. She repeated her criticism of the Little Rock School Board at the time. She said the district’s schools were in terrible shape. She didn’t mention that the Board takeover vote kept the existing superintendent in place, though he later was forced to resign when he was shown to be a plagiarist. She said most students in the district, if not in distressed schools, were still in schools in need of help. She came with a lengthy recitation of problems she saw in the district at the time of takeover. She said the prudent thing to do would be to approve the tax and fix the problems. She offered no suggestion of when that might occur.
Elliott commented later on Twitter on Zook’s prepared recitation of her view of the district’s failings:
Ever heard of mission creep? LRSD taken over for academic distress. Now the mission has crept to a litany of reasons from Diane Zook.
Understand. The law does not allow state takeover for Zook’s litany of reasons. That is not the law.
Her mention of need of paint prompted a rejoinder from Reith, who said paint wasn’t the best measure of schools.
Superintendent Michael Poore was asked to speak by Board member Joe Black. He said he’d tried to be inclusive. And he credited past ideas for many positive changes that had been implemented, from tightening budgets to programs and school improvements. He said he viewed his objectives included a return local control as soon as possible. He acknowledged challenges because of the “trust factor” in the community. He acknowledged that, while gains were being made at Henderson, one of three schools still in distress by test standards, the problems at Cloverdale and Hall were more difficult.
Board member Fitz Hill, a former football coach, said the Board needed to “move the ball down the field” and needed to work as a team. But he said the matter was “complex.” And he suggested some in the community might not understand what was at work.
Reith kept pressing for something concrete, but nothing emerged.
Board member Charisse Dean said the issue was personal because of her family connections to the district, including four children currently students. She said the district should return to local control as soon as possible, but she said she didn’t want to do so unless it was “beneficial to the children.”
Barth agreed that problems needed to be addressed, but there was a moment when the Board would have to decide and “take a little bit of risk.” He said there’s a point at which state takeover “really mars a district’s ability to take off.” If the community has no voice, it’s discouraged from making the effort, he said.
Reith said Little Rock needed a timeline where none now exists. Absent any specific suggestion, she said she hoped maybe the subject could come up again in the few months she has left on the board.
Zook resisted the idea that a return of local control would increase trust. She suggested it would be wrong “to assume there would be trust automatically with a local board or the democrat process makes things better.”
At the end, Zook moved that the department’s committee keep the community aware of efforts to bring the district out of distress and to have a future work session. Key bridled a bit, seeming to defend his department’s work and suggesting that problems were related to resistance. “We also need open ears, open hearts, open minds and all those things.”