Education Commissioner Johnny Key Brian Chilson

The State Board of Education, as expected, voted 8-1 to waive the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act for all Pine Bluff School District employees for the 2019/2020 school year. The fair dismissal law provides due process protections to teachers. The Pine Bluff district will be unique among traditional public schools in the state in not affording these due process rights to employees (though likely not for long, as the Board is now discussing waivers for the Little Rock School District).

Board chairman Jay Barth, who typically does not vote unless to break a tie, was the lone vote against it.

In testimony before the board, Superintendent Jeremy Owoh said he didn’t know if the waiver would be helpful to him. Owoh, an employee of the state Education Department, was appointed to head the district when the state board voted in September to take over the fiscally distressed district.

Owoh said the Pine Bluff district needed “significant change” but expressed unease at waiving the fair dismissal act, calling such a move “uncharted territory.” Based on his observations from two months on the job, he said, teachers in the district often lacked consistent support from their administrators. When state board member Fitz Hill asked him whether waiving the law would assist his work or not, Owoh said he couldn’t answer that question.

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“What would help me is to have a consistent support system across our K-12 district,” he said.

State Rep. Vivian Flowers (D-Pine Bluff) spoke against the waiver. She said that Owoh has been “wonderful” so far, but made the point that this request did not come from him. She worried that eliminating due process protections in Pine Bluff would make it harder to recruit and retain teachers. “Pine Bluff is flanked by school districts with a higher starting pay,” she said. Teachers considering a job at the district might say to themselves, ” ‘That school does not protect me … so I’m not going to go there.’ “

Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington, who said she’d spent 38 years as a teacher and principal in the district, also spoke against the proposal. “Yes, our educational system is broken, but it is not the fault of the teachers,” she said.

Several others spoke against the waiver, and two spoke for it. Both were Republican elected officials not from Pine Bluff, state Rep. Mark Lowery of Maumelle and Lt. Governor Tim Griffin. (Both are also white; everyone who spoke against the waiver was from Pine Bluff and was African American.) Griffin said that it was the state’s responsibility to step in and create major changes in the district. He rejected complaints that the fair dismissal law has never been waived before. “There’s a lot of stuff in the state that’s never been done that needs to be done,” he said.

State board member Brett WIlliamson made the motion to follow the recommendations of the Education Department and waive the fair dismissal law. Several board members said that they supported the waiver because they trusted Owoh to use it judiciously

“These waivers are left to the discretion of the superintendent …  It doesn’t say he has to use it, period,” board member Susan Chambers said. “There isn’t a sense of urgency right now … and I want to give Dr. Owoh the flexibility to do what he needs to do.” She said the state board had been criticized for acting slowly after the takeover Little Rock and that it needed to act faster in Pine Bluff.

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Jay Barth, the lone vote against the proposal, said he didn’t have confidence the Education Department would necessarily give Owoh “absolute freedom to use this wisely.” Barth said he would have supported a waiver of the due process law that was “limited to non-classroom administrative personnel” but couldn’t support a waiver as applied to classroom teachers because he feared it would “decimate trust in the community and decimate morale in the community.”