The upcoming May 9 vote on an extension of the bonded debt issued by the Little Rock School District will likely be a close one, as detailed in the current issue of the Times. It’s a tough choice for many supporters of public schools. On the one hand, the district’s proposed $160 million in construction and renovations is long overdue. On the other, the district remains under state control with no end in sight, and many in the community rankle at the thought of handing Education Commissioner Johnny Key more funds.
Here’s one more voice who advocates a “yes” on May 9: Sam Ledbetter, the former chair of the state Board of Education who cast the decisive vote in 2015 to take over the district.
Ledbetter, whose term on the state board ended later that year, is highly critical of decisions made by Key regarding the growth of charter schools in Little Rock. He writes that Key “has shown time and again that he is out of touch with our community and the needs of the district.” And, he calls for “the state to set a timetable to return the district to local control.”
However, Ledbetter supports the debt extension as a good thing for the LRSD regardless of governance: “State control of the district is temporary. In the meantime, regardless of who is running the district, LRSD students deserve modern facilities and the hardworking, dedicated employees of the district deserve our support.”
I will support extending the current millage rate to allow LRSD to finance planned capital improvements.
On January 28, 2015, the Arkansas Board of Education, on a 5-4 vote, decided to place control of the LRSD with the state Department of Education, meaning that the Commissioner of Education would replace the duly elected school board. I recall the date well, as I cast the fifth and deciding vote. The decision to take control of LRSD was not an easy one and has proved to be very controversial. My vote disappointed a lot of close friends. However, state control of the LRSD provided hope to others that urgent steps would be taken to address longstanding underperformance at a number of schools serving predominately low-income, minority students.
Following state takeover, and the dismissal of then-superintendent Dexter Suggs approximately three months later, Education Commissioner Johnny Key named Baker Kurrus as superintendent. Baker’s appointment gave hope to many who had questioned state takeover. He took to the job with a passion and intensity few could muster. In a very short period, a number of positive changes were implemented and morale quickly improved. District employees were empowered to do what they are passionate about: making a difference in the lives of their students. In return, the outstanding teachers who are the key to the district’s success made many personal sacrifices for the good of the district. They believed Baker had their back, and he did. For the most part, our community rallied behind Baker. Yet Mr. Kurrus was not given the chance to finish what he started.
Less than a year later, in 2016, the state was asked to approve the expansion of the two largest charter schools operating within the district. Baker assembled indisputable proof that this would harm the district. He joined community leaders and elected officials to argue vigorously against this expansion, particularly at such a fragile moment for the district. Many of us begged the governor, Commissioner Key and ultimately the state Board of Education not to authorize this expansion but rather to “pause and plan” for the future of the LRSD and the larger issues surrounding education in Pulaski County, with a particular focus on the area south of the Arkansas River.
With Mr. Key openly advocating for this expansion, the state board voted to approve the charter schools’ growth plans. That was bad enough. Then, shortly thereafter, Commissioner Key announced that he was dismissing Baker Kurrus, under the pretext of wanting to bring someone else in to focus on academic improvement. There is no doubt in my mind that Mr. Kurrus was dismissed because of his opposition to the State’s charter school expansion and that any statement to the contrary is untrue. Had Mr. Key been concerned with the district’s lack of focus on academic improvement under Mr. Kurrus, one would think that he would address the issue with Mr. Kurrus before terminating him, particularly given the district’s history with turnover in superintendents.
Michael Poore was chosen to replace Baker Kurrus. Mr. Poore is an outstanding person and educational administrator. Under any other circumstances, I would have welcomed his appointment to this position. In my view, Mr. Key dug Mr. Poore a very deep hole before he arrived by dismissed Mr. Kurrus. At every turn since, Mr. Poore has been dealt a bad hand by Mr. Key, most recently in his behind-the-scenes support of legislation to give charter schools the upper hand in buying up closed public school buildings. Nevertheless, Superintendent Poore is doing great work for the district.
It is now time for the state to set a timetable to return the district to local control. Academic performance has improved across the district, and three of the six schools that were labeled in academic distress are now achieving. In the meantime, Mr. Key has shown time and again that he is out of touch with our community and the needs of the district. In short, he has demonstrated that he has no business making decisions that impact the district. A large segment of the community has no confidence in Mr. Key, who has a misplaced belief that “school reform” measures characterized by “choice” and “competition” will improve education for everyone. There is no evidence that this “school choice” solution will improve LRSD. In fact, all evidence is to the contrary.
Development of the current facilities plans began under the elected school board and has continued under the leadership of Baker Kurrus and Michael Poore. Whether return to local control happens in one year, or two years, or even three years, state control of the district is temporary. In the meantime, regardless of who is running the district, LRSD students deserve modern facilities and the hardworking, dedicated employees of the district deserve our support. Thus, I will vote to extend the current millage rate to provide a funding source for LRSD to make the capital improvements it has planned.