Yesterday, KARK and Fox 16 hosted a mayoral debate between Baker Kurrus and Frank Scott Jr. in advance of the Dec. 4 runoff election. One of the most contentious exchanges occurred in response to a question about the Little Rock School District, which has remained under state takeover since January 2015. Both Kurrus and Scott have said publicly and repeatedly that the LRSD should be quickly returned to a locally elected school board. (The mayor doesn’t have control over school district affairs, however.)

Kurrus knows the district very well, having served 12 years on its board (he departed in 2010) and later as its superintendent. His close association with the city’s schools is one of his chief selling points to voters. But yesterday, Scott attempted to poke a hole in Kurrus’ narrative by questioning his opposition to state takeover, at least when it first occurred. KARK’s Austin Kellerman tweeted a clip of the relevant exchange.

“It’s been publicly known for quite some time that [Kurrus] was against local control at the time and could not work with the existing school board, and that’s actually how he got hired,” Scott said.

Kurrus’ appeared startled by Scott’s statement, then angry. The suggestion he was against local control was “absolutely not true,” he said. “I never said that, and nobody that knows me would ever say that. That’s nonsense. It’s a complete fabrication,” he responded.

Scott said Kurrus’ position was stated “in the press” at the time. Kurrus said that was false. As evidence, Scott’s campaign later cited to KARK reporter Jessi Turnure an Arkansas Times blog post I wrote when Kurrus was first appointed superintendent in May 2015.

So did Kurrus oppose local control at the time or not? Not really, but he certainly didn’t endorse it. Though Scott’s assertion isn’t an “absolute fabrication,” it bends the truth. Yet Kurrus’ indignance doesn’t totally hold water, either. Recall that in 2015, Kurrus was appointed by the state to run a district that it had newly taken over. At the time, I don’t recall him expressing opposition to local control per se — but he did argue against a proposal to reinstate the local board in an ambiguous partnership role, calling it “a terrible idea,” because it would create a confusing chain of command.

Let’s back up. On Jan. 1, 2015, Little Rock had a newly elected school board, a handful of schools in academic distress, a long list of expensive facility needs and a potential budget crisis on the horizon. It also had an unpopular superintendent in the form of Dexter Suggs. That January, the state Board of Education voted 5-4 to dissolve the newly elected local board, ostensibly because of the academically distressed campuses. In doing so, the state board handed control of the district to the state Education Department, making the education commissioner the LRSD’s new school board. Soon thereafter, Governor Hutchinson appointed Johnny Key as commissioner. In April, when Suggs was felled by a plagiarism scandal, Key had to pick a new leader to run the district. (Under normal circumstances, the school board is responsible for hiring and firing the superintendent.) Key chose Baker Kurrus, a Little Rock businessman with a long history serving on the LRSD board.

The takeover of the district was highly contentious at the time — but the political fault lines were different than they are today. Then, there were a number of school district advocates (many of them liberal-leaning) who thought state takeover was not such a bad thing in 2015, or at least felt ambivalent about it. They saw a chronically divided district with worsening academic and fiscal problems and thought a period of top-down state control might correct its course. The most vocal opposition to the takeover came from the city’s black community and the deposed school board members themselves, who were mostly African American. They argued that the state’s removal of a democratically elected, majority-black governing body with an ambitious reform agenda was unjust, racially motivated and inexcusable on its face.

I have no idea where either Kurrus or Scott stood on the question of takeover itself in January 2015. I covered the state Board of Education meeting at which the decision was made, as well as many of the protests and legal proceedings in its aftermath, and I don’t recall either man speaking publicly for or against the takeover. (I’d be happy to update this post if either campaign has evidence to the contrary.)

In May, when Key appointed Kurrus as superintendent, there was a legal wrinkle. Kurrus did not have a higher degree in education, as required by statute, so the state board had to waive the law regarding administrator qualifications. The state board did so, but one of its members who’d been opposed to state takeover of the LRSD, Alice Mahoney, made a motion to reinstate the dissolved local school board in some capacity, “as a partner” to Kurrus. (At the time, the state board itself was very different than it is today, its members having been appointed by Democrat Mike Beebe; today, almost all of those members have been replaced by Hutchinson appointees.)

Kurrus told the state board he thought that was a terrible idea, because he wouldn’t know to whom he was supposed to answer — Key or the reinstated local board. Mahoney’s motion failed. At the time, Jim Ross, one of the former local board members, condemned Kurrus’ opposition to Mahoney’s proposal as proof the new superintendent was working to institute the agenda of Key and the governor in the LRSD. But later events also showed that Kurrus wasn’t simply doing the education commissioner’s bidding.

In April 2016, Kurrus was fired by Key — a move that in retrospect may have shifted Little Rock public opinion on the state takeover in general. Key fired the superintendent soon after Kurrus spoke out against proposals from two Little Rock charter schools to expand operations in the city. Kurrus said their growth would come at the expense of the LRSD.

It was clear to just about everyone that Kurrus was being terminated for taking a stand against charter schools — which have powerful, rich backers in Arkansas, including the Walton family — and his dismissal ended up unifying disparate groups in the district who were dismayed by Key’s actions. As I wrote at the time, Kurrus’ firing made many white residents of Little Rock realize that they, too, were rendered disenfranchised by the state takeover. This sense of martyrdom thrust Kurrus into the city’s political spotlight and, in fact, may have precipitated his run for mayor. As Kurrus exited the superintendent’s seat in 2016, he also raised questions about whether the LRSD should remain under state control for much longer. Since then, Kurrus has remained active in school politics and increasingly critical of the state’s governance of the district. In 2017, for example, he took a public stand against a millage proposal put forth by Superintendent Mike Poore, in part because of actions by the state that he said “made the mission of LRSD much more difficult” — specifically, its readiness to approve more and more charter school seats in the city.

So, what to make of Scott’s quote that Kurrus was “against local control at the time and could not work with the existing school board, and that’s actually how he got hired”?  Personally, I think it’s fair to say that if Kurrus had been staunchly opposed to the state’s takeover of the district and its dissolution of the local board in 2015, he probably wouldn’t have accepted the state’s offer of a job to unilaterally run the district in the first place. But, it’s a stretch for Scott to say that he was actually “against local control” based on that set of facts.

Here’s the clip of the KARK exchange between the candidates: