Baker Kurrus and State Rep. Warwick Sabin, candidates for Little Rock mayor, have jumped in on Education Commissioner Johnny Key’s rejection of a teacher contract that doesn’t allow firing teachers at will. Both raise questions about waiving state law as the first means to address school improvement, Kurrus most pointedly, with references to the charter school drain encouraged by Key and the unfairness of singling out Little Rock schools for this. UPDATE: Frank Scott Jr. responded Wednesday morning.
Kurrus posted a statement this morning on Facebook:
Commissioner Johnny Key has asked many of Little Rock School District’s teachers to agree to a waiver of state law which provides almost all of Arkansas’s public school teachers with fundamental due process rights with respect to their employment. The commissioner has raised this issue after months of negotiations between Little Rock’s superintendent and teacher representatives. This will force Little Rock’s teachers to make a very difficult decision on short notice. Should they defend their state law rights, or give up a fundamental right of employment which they have had since they were first hired? It seems unfair in any event to raise such a major issue at the end of a negotiation. This type of negotiation does not build trust and cooperation at a time when those two fundamental elements are essential to the success of LRSD. It also undermines the authority of the school district’s primary negotiator, the superintendent.
We all want our schools and students to be successful. The state has been in control of LRSD for almost four years. During this period Little Rock has lost students to new schools in our community which have either been started or expanded with the state’s permission. If the students who left were higher performing, the average scores of the remaining students were driven down by this state action, at the time when the state itself was in control. It would also be helpful to know the academic achievement levels of students who left LRSD, but then transferred back to LRSD because the competing schools were not accommodating the special needs of these students.
This basic conflict of interest needs to be addressed, or at least accounted for. It would be helpful now to know these facts, which are available to the state.
I would urge the commissioner to step back from his demand and provide more information which would allow the community to understand the reasoning and purposes behind his action. I would also urge that the deadline of October 31 be extended so that the teachers in all of Little Rock’s schools are not forced to defend the basic rights which have been afforded to all teachers in traditional public schools in our state for many years. If a major change in state law is needed, it would appear that the legislature should take up the matter, so that any change would apply equally to all schools which are similarly situated, rather than just to schools in LRSD. In any event, the school year is underway, and teachers are under contract until the end of the year. As a practical matter no changes in schools could be made until next school year. I would ask that the parties extend the current agreement, employ a mediator if necessary, and get to work improving results rather than forcing an unnecessary showdown. If I can be a volunteer facilitator in any of this, please count me in.
Sabin issued this statement in the afternoon:
“The directive issued by state Education Commissioner Johnny Key demonstrates the problem with having a one-man unelected school board making unilateral decisions for the Little Rock School District.
We need to do everything we can to improve our schools, but there is no evidence that waiving state laws that were adopted through a deliberative democratic process will solve any problems. Instead it is likely to create more uncertainty and instability that will further undermine the LRSD as it faces great challenges.
It also doesn’t make sense to single out teachers for corrective action when we should be doing everything we can to attract and retain high-quality educators. We need a collaborative approach that includes teachers, administrators, parents, students, and — most importantly — an elected school board that directly represents the interests of every citizen in our city.”
Amen to both. I’ve also asked for comment from Frank Scott.
I also sent Key a series of questions today.
He didn’t “release” that statement yesterday. I obtained it from a source and published it. The Democrat-Gazette later developed a story.
I was curious, for one, about his reference to an Oct. 3 agenda.
But I’m more curious to know how he explains a lack of advancement of the district under four years of state control. Doesn’t his department, now in charge, share responsibility? What about the “school board,” i..e., Johnny Key. The state fired the last school board because six of 46 schools were deemed deficient. The number is now up to 23. What about the principals? Does Key not place responsibility on them? Why have so few of them been replaced? What about his hand-picked superintendent, Michael Poore?
No, Key wants to fire teachers.
I have asked a very specific question that deserves an answer. How many teachers has LRSD wanted to fire but found stymied by the state teacher fair dismissal law, which provides some due process and protection from whims of a poor supervisor?
Also, is LRSD the first step in rolling back fair dismissal wherever a school is judged in “academic distress”? I think I know the answer.
UPDATE: Frank Scott Jr.’s response arrived by email Wednesday morning:
“While spending the day greeting voters at the early voting locations, I contemplated the issues surrounding the growing controversy related to the contractual negotiations between the Little Rock School District and the Little Rock Education Association.
“Yesterday, I spent the evening talking about this issue with those who directly affected and involved. It is my understanding that this disagreement stems from the letter grade rating at some of the LRSD schools which has resulted in a request for a waiver of the teacher-dismissal law. Ultimately, the lack of a locally-controlled school board has allowed this controversy to exist.
“As I have stated before, I strongly support the immediate return of the LRSD to local control. This will allow our elected school board officials to make thoughtful decisions regarding the contractual relationship between the LRSD and LREA to permit protection of the due process rights of one of our city’s most cherished resources, our teachers.
“The current proposal invokes unfairness and a double standard: teachers will be treated differently depending on the location of their employment without any regard to the unique circumstances at each of our schools. This would make our city, our schools, and our teachers even further disconnected.
“We have to focus on moving from disconnected to connected, connecting our city, our schools, and our teachers to create better educational opportunities and to create a better Little Rock. The restoration of a locally elected school board must be one of the first steps in that process.
“Also, as outlined in our Opportunity Agenda, we recognize the importance of our City leaders providing support and resources to the LRSD’s teachers and students to improve our schools.
“This is why we intend to implement a summer and after-schoolgrade level reading program to improve literacy and hire Little Rock’s first Chief Education Officer to collaborate with the LRSD, LREA, and others to increase resources and opportunities for both teachers and students. It’s time to unify our city in support of our teachers and students.”