Little Rock School District supporters are outraged about an angry statement state Board of Education member Brett Williamson of El Dorado made at the end of a board meeting Thursday following several speakers who called for a return of local control of the district, taken over by the state two years ago because of six schools among 48 in academic distress.
During a public comment session, Samantha Toro, Rev. Maxine Allen, Vicki Hatter and Anika Whitfield spoke about the tax election this week and the Little Rock schools and urged a return
Education Commissioner Johnny Key, who functions as the district school board, has consistently said local control through an elected board can’t return until ALL schools are judged proficient, though Board member Jay Barth and others say the board has discretion under state law to provide flexibility in that standard.
After Reith spoke, Williamson spoke up in an angry tone. You can listen at about the 5:00 mark on the video above. He said:
“With all due respect, I’m tired of hearing about the Little Rock School District. I’ve had it, OK?
“Every month I’ve been on this board we’ve talked about the Little Rock School District. I know 26 or 28 months ago they were taken over. I know there were three of you that were here then who voted against it. I get that. Has there been any compelling information created from the district or the department that I haven’t seen that would change my mind? Is anyone aware of that?”
Reith responded calmly that there are different interpretations of what might constitute compelling information and that’s why she wanted to have a work session, to get information on “what compelling information might look like.” She said board members are prohibited from talking informally outside of meetings about business matters so such a work session was necessary.
Diane Zook, a leader of the takeover movement and persistent critic of the district, lectured the speakers on the regular reports the board receives about Little Rock schools and their interest in the schools. She said it was important to consider more than percentages in individual schools falling short of proficiency but the total number of students in the district falling short. She estimated about a third of students weren’t achieving basic proficiency.
That is NOT, however, the standard on which state takeover is based. And proficiency apparently is irrelevant when it comes to charter schools. The Board earlier yesterday voted to again give an academically failing and financially challenged charter school, Covenant Keepers, another chance to keep its permit to operate on
Williamson’s remarks drew letters Thursday night from Whitfield and Marion Humphrey, the retired judge who led the fight against the school millage extension that Johnny Key and others backed. Whitfield said in part:
As I sat beside Ms. Hatter’s daughter, I felt disbelief and shock after Mr. Williamson said, “I am sick and tired of hearing about the LRSD.” This middle school student I sat beside appeared to not only offended by Mr. Williamson’s callous statement, but she seemed to be moved to tears. She said to me tearfully, “Dr. Whitfield, does that mean he doesn’t care about us?”
I would ask that Mr. Williamson, not only publicly apologize to Ms. Hatter and her daughter who were present in the room when he spoke so firmly and callously about the LRSD, but I would also ask that he offer all of the students, parents, teachers, administrators and supporters of LRSD an apology.
Humphrey said there was a growing sense among many in Little Rock that the state board wasn’t interested in
Moreover, I have thought all along that the vote to take over the Little Rock School District should not have been conducted with participation by several state Board of Education members, who had perceived conflicts of interests due to business interests of relatives, personal pursuit of new employment, and searching for program grants. The longer the current friction persists between the state board and patrons of the LRSD, the more likely it is that the public will be made aware of these perceived conflicts, leading to the loss of confidence in the integrity of decisions made by the state board.
If Williamson felt sick, Humphrey suggest he might visit one of the many good physicians in Little Rock educated in the Little Rock School District.
I sent Williamson an e-mail asking him to explain his remarks, whether he would apologize and whether he’d damaged his ability to appear an impartial decision-maker when it came to the Little Rock School District. He has not responded.
There is a simple solution to someone sick of hearing about a school district under the control of the state Board of Education.
1) Return local control.
2) Resign from the board.
Given that public comment should be the bedrock of democracy, not a reason for an exasperated outburst by a nominal public servant, perhaps No. 2 is Williamson’s best course.
Humphrey’s veiled reference to conflicts of interest among board members includes Williamson, an employee of the Murphy Foundation, a charitable arm of the wealthy family that controls Murphy Oil. Members of the family have been financial supporters of the movement that has promoted charter school formation in Arkansas, a movement that has drained thousands of students from the Little Rock School District and continues to grow, with state Board oversight.