Gary Smith, the businessman leading the election effort to extend more than $40 million in annual Little Rock School District property taxes for 14 years, wrote an op-ed responding to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s non-endorsement of the tax on the ballot tomorrow. He said, in small part:
“Forget open-enrollment charter schools…”
Little Rock voters simply cannot. The evidence was spread on the front page of this morning’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
In a district already decimated by charter schools (more than 9,000 charter school seats in Pulaski County, heavily concentrated in Little Rock, as Baker Kurrus has noted), four more charter school applications are in the mill. They enjoy the planning help of the Walton-funded Arkansas Public School Research Center. One of them, the former Mitchell Elementary at 24th and Battery, would be in a building purchased with Walton money to house a charter school. The Walton-financed assault on the Little Rock School District continues, in other words. And the man in charge of the Little Rock schools, state Education Commissioner Johnny Key, who handled Walton legislation when he was in the Senate, thinks it’s good for the school district to create these “choices” — even if scant evidence exists to support that faith-based notion.
The four proposals would:
* Put 520 students K-9 in the old Mitchell School. (A Walton company, KLS Leasing, which has acquired other charter school properties, just bought this property April 27 for $440,000 from the Blevins family, which bought it in 2008. They must think it’s a pretty solid investment.)
* The national charter operator Einstein Group wants a K-8 school for 700 students at a site to be determined.
* Another national operator, Friendship Aspire, wants to start a “college prep” K-5 student for 600 students somewhere (that recently vacated Woodruff school in Stifft Station would be just ducky, don’t you think?)
* Aviate Through Knowledge proposes a 200-student 9-12 school on Baseline Road (not far from where LRSD is building a new high school.)
That’s 2,000 students in sum. I think you can lock in the Waltons getting approval on the Mitchell School proposal at a minimum; they call the shots at the state Education Department. Each student taken from the Little Rock School District means the loss of more than $6,000 in state foundation aid (a bit more than half supplied by local property taxes). Take $12 million worth of students more out of the district and you’re talking big budget problems, particularly if the district expands its debt by $200 million for an additional 14 years. This is the problem Baker Kurrus foresaw in opposing the school tax. There must be a plan for the school district, he wrote. And if that plan is to include unlimited proliferation of charter schools (as Johnny Key, the Waltons and Gov. Asa Hutchinson apparently support) then the remnant Little Rock School District should have a long-term budget and operational plan that fits with that reality. The tax plan up for a vote this week does not do that.
Also this: A Walton Foundation spokesman defended the purchase of the Mitchell school. “This proposed school will serve a neighborhood that has limited access to high-quality education options,” a communications officer told the Democrat-Gazette.
Get it? The implicit statement is that the Little Rock School District offers no high-quality education options.
For the record: It’s 12 blocks or so to Dunbar, a middle school my children attended with great results. It’s another block or so to one of the single best schools in the city, the Gibbs Elementary. It’s a mile to the King elementary. It’s a mile to the Washington Elementary. It’s not much farther to Stephens Elementary. Heck, it’s only three miles to Franklin Elementary, which is being closed because — as both Kurrus and Michael Poore have noted — the central part of Little Rock is oversupplied with school seats. That’s why some are being closed.
But the Waltons have determined all these under-capacity schools suck. Students and money should be siphoned from the Little Rock School District so that private operators — unaccountable and shadowy in many operational details — can get the taxpayer money. The silence of Johnny Key and Michael Poore on this charter grab while they are grabbing for $600 to $900 million in additional property taxes doesn’t inspire confidence about the long-term future of the school district. Do you really think a district with further enrollment declines won’t have to turn over some of its spiffed-up schools (thanks, taxpayers) to charter operators someday?
Reminder: When Poore announced school closures, he cited the district’s declining enrollment and 2,300 vacant elementary seats. He’s also been a tireless defender of quality of the schools (none of those in easy distance of the Mitchell school are on the academic distress list).
The best he could muster for comment on news of potentially 2,000 more charter seats in an already over-schooled district? He said he would let the process “ride a little bit” and see what ultimately emerges.
It emerged long ago. And the Waltons aren’t done yet.
Save Our Schools, a group opposing school closures and opposing the tax, has scheduled a news conference today. It has a few more things to talk about.
UPDATE: SOS complained that schools were sending information home with children, that district teachers were being threatened with loss of jobs and that Police Chief Kenton Buckner’s support for schools at a recent City Board meeting wasn’t a reference to the tax proposal.