Little Rock School District Superintendent Mike Poore on Monday afternoon presented a draft “blueprint” for the district’s facilities in the coming years.

Among other details, Poor outlined the following

*progress on the LRSD’s new Southwest Little Rock high school, which will replace the existing J.A. Fair and McClellan high schools
*proposals to repurpose the Fair and McClellan buildings as K-8 schools, which would have downstream effects on existing elementary campuses in adjoining neighborhoods
*expected changes at Hall High, including the transfer of some 300 students to the new Southwest campus
*plans for a currently unused building adjacent to the Pinnacle View middle school in West Little Rock, which is being pursued by a charter school operator
*plans for the former Hamilton Learning Academy building, which is also empty and also being pursued by a charter operator
*possible expansion of pre-K options throughout the city
*likely closure or repurposing of one or more schools on the east side of the city

The superintendent said the plan — unveiled at a press conference at the LRSD’s Metro Tech Career Center — is intended to “evolve” in the coming weeks as the district holds a series of community meetings to solicit input. The first will be held at McClellan on Tuesday, Sept. 4 at 5:30 p.m.; other dates and locations are here, along with an online survey from the district on the facilities plan.

Poore’s emphasis on community input was met with skepticism by state Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock), who spoke out against the LRSD’s last round of school closures, in 2017.

“Last time we had a round of school closings, we had community meetings and people showed up and stated their opinions, and it made not one whit of difference, except for maybe Carver [Elementary],” she said. Carver, an under-capacity magnet school in east Little Rock, was initially on the 2017 closure list but was later spared; other campuses, such as Franklin and Wilson elementaries, were not so lucky.

“Why should the community believe that it matters if they come to these sessions?” Elliott asked Poore.

Poore told Elliott he disagreed with her assessment. “I believe it did matter,” he said. “I believe there were changes beyond Carver … other things we did that modified the plan as it was initially generated.” He said the community meetings also helped generate public awareness of the district’s facility and other needs, which may have contributed to an uptick in volunteerism in the schools.


Update, 5:45 p.m.:

Elliott also noted that the proposed changes seem to be concentrated south of I-630 — that is, the predominately African-American and Latino neighborhoods of residentially segregated Little Rock. “Once again we’re asking folks south of 630 to bear all the brunt of any changes that take place. Nothing happens to anybody north of 630,” she said.

Poore said the district has invested in significant capital improvements in schools south of 630, noting the Southwest Little Rock high school — the largest building project undertaken by the LRSD in decades — as well as recent improvements to facilities at Cloverdale Middle School and McClellan

Elliott asked Poore whether the final decision for the facilities overhaul would rest with state Education Commissioner Johnny Key, as it did with the previous round of closures. “That is correct. He still acts as our board,” Poore said.

Because the LRSD’s elected school board was dissolved when the state took over the district in 2015, Key makes all decisions that the board would normally make.

Poore tied the proposed facilities overhaul to a need to improve teacher salaries, especially for new hires. LRSD teachers and staff have “not received any kind of salary percent increase for a number of years. They’ve had their health insurance go up, and even had the contributions by the district go down,” he acknowledged. Starting teacher salary in the district is $33,000, he said. “The competitors we have in this region and in this state far exceed that amount.”

If the district runs more efficiently, Poore said, it could begin to generate savings by 2020 that could be applied to significant salary increases. (In theory, at least, shuttering schools with slack capacity would free up district resources for other purposes, such as paying personnel.)

The new Southwest high school will absorb all students from McClellan (about 750) and Fair (currently 846) and 300 from Hall. Currently, Hall houses a specialty program for non-native English speakers, many of whom live in Southwest Little Rock.

“Those 300 students are English-language learners, primarily, and they would go back down to their home area where they live. And that’s a positive thing, because those kids right now ride a bus that’s 30 to 45 minutes long,” Poore said.

Under Poore’s outline, the old McClellan building would become a K-8 school replacing Cloverdale, a facility which has had chronic structural problems. Because Cloverdale is currently a 6-8 school, that might lead to closing one or more elementaries in the neighborhood — Wakefiled, Watson, Baseline or Meadowcliff — and melding it with the new K-8. The McClellan building itself is flawed, Poore said, and will eventually need to be demolished, but he noted the district doesn’t have the capital to make that fix any time soon.

The J.A. Fair building, too, would become a K-8 under his proposal. It would replace existing Henderson Middle School, perhaps supplemented by adding in Romine or Dodd elementaries. The Fair building is a “much better facility” than the current Henderson campus, Poore said.

As for the Henderson building, he suggested that the property could be sold … or that it may be eligible to become a disaster recovery center with the help of a federal grant. Congressman French Hill could help with that process, Poore said. (Hill was in attendance for the announcement Monday.)

In addition to losing 300 students, Hall High would become subject to an adjustment to its attendance zone boundaries. “We also, as a recommendation, will be trying to promote the idea that Hall can have a greater tie to Forest Heights STEM … and be a career development center,” he said. Forest Heights is the district’s only K-8 campus today.

Then there’s Pinnacle View, the LRSD’s new middle school in West Little Rock. Under a state law passed in 2017, a charter school operator can force a district to sell unused or underutilized property. Poore said he’s been informed by the state Education Department that a charter wants to obtain an unused office building that sits on district-owned land adjacent to the new campus. (The building housed Pinnacle View students in the first year of the school’s existence, 2016-17.)

“There’s a challenge coming from the state, from the community — an entity — to say they’d like to take that property over,” he said. “I want this clearly heard — the commissioner and Mike Poore want to repurpose two facilities, one being Pinnacle and that office space, so that we use that facility for our own district kids.” His draft plan listed several options for the office building, including turning it into a “small high school w/ blended, project learning.”

The other facility being investigated by a charter operator, he said, is a now-vacant building that once housed Hamilton Learning Academy. That property is immediately adjacent to Bale Elementary, a K-5 campus which Poore said is underutilized.

“Again, the commissioner and I are firm to say we’d rather repurpose [Hamilton] to have it for Little Rock students, and the suggestion you’re going to see … is to turn Bale into some sort of pre-K – 2 campus,” along with a 3-8 campus that is divided into separate wings by gender. The Central Arkansas Library System has expressed interest in a partnership at the facility, he said.

Finally, Poore returned to the topic of underpopulated elementary schools in the eastern part of Little Rock, which has several buildings operating under capacity. One recommendation is to turn Rockefeller Elementary — which today includes a robust early pre-K program, along with K-5 — into a “birth-to-pre-K” center and shift elementary students to Washington Elementary. “But we need additional solutions for that particular area because there [are that many] seats available … and we need to use our resources as effectively as we possibly can,” he said.

Asked whether the district should wait to impose such a sweeping facilities plan until after local control is returned, Poore said the district couldn’t wait. “We’ve got to tackle issues now … there’s no way that you just wait for two years and say ‘Well, let’s see how a board does this.’ The board’s going to have plenty to do when they arrive,” he said.

The state can keep a district in takeover for a maximum of five years, though it can release it earlier. Little Rock was taken over in January 2015, meaning the state’s deadline is approaching in the next year and a half.