MARATHON MEETING: Superintendent Mike Poore addresses the state Board of Education. BRIAN CHILSON

As of this evening, employees of the Little Rock School District no longer enjoy statutory due process protections under the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act. The state Board of Education voted 6-3 to waive the state labor law for all LRSD employees on all campuses in the district after hours of public comment that skewed overwhelmingly against granting the waiver. Here’s our full coverage of the day’s proceedings.

That makes Little Rock one of two traditional public school districts in the state in which the fair dismissal act no longer applies. Earlier on Thursday, the board waived the same law for the Pine Bluff School District. Both districts are currently under state takeover, meaning they are governed not by a locally elected school board but by Education Commissioner Johnny Key. The state board also waived a related labor law for non-certified school staff, the Public School Employee Fair Hearing Act, in both Little Rock and Pine Bluff.

The Teacher Fair Dismissal Act provides for a process of evaluation, counseling and improvement before a district can fire a teacher for performance-based reasons. It doesn’t apply in cases of gross misconduct or negligence; teachers can be (and routinely are) suspended or fired for clear misbehavior.

Little Rock Superintendent Mike Poore said after the meeting that he would use his newfound power carefully. Poore didn’t ask the state board for the waiver. In fact, he pushed back somewhat against the proposal to waive the law across the entire district, pointing out that a negotiated agreement reached between Key and the Little Rock Education Association in November had been premised on Key’s assurances that he would only seek a waiver of the fair dismissal act at those campuses that scored a “D” or “F” on a recent accountability metric.

Advertisement

(Key also assured teachers in October and November that he would only seek a waiver of the fair dismissal law for the 2019-20 school year, rather than the current year. He repeated those claims to the public multiple times. Though the commissioner did not forward the specific waiver proposal that passed tonight — that was the work of state board members — neither did he ever raise his voice against it or point out that it ran counter to what he had earlier told the district he would do.)

Poore told this reporter he wanted to address his comments to teachers in the LRSD. “All I can do right now is promise that I’m going to be fair and I’m going to be really on top of looking at recommendations to make sure that there’s cause [before a termination],” he said. “If it’s not there, then the recommendation won’t pass. And I also believe our principals will do that as well.”

Waiver of the fair dismissal law doesn’t mean LRSD employees are entirely without protections, according to Teresa Knapp Gordon, president of the Little Rock Educational Association. The professional negotiated agreement recently reached between the LREA and Key contains a grievance process which allows an employee to appeal a termination.

Gordon said that tonight played out much as the union expected.

“I’m not surprised about what happened,” Gordon said. “I’m disappointed. It’s the first day of the winter break, and it’s not a great Christmas present.” Little Rock teachers are working hard and collaborating with the district and achieving great things, she said, despite the challenges facing Little Rock schools. “It’s like none of that matters. …  The state board does not get it,” she said.

“We anticipated that a waiver of teacher fair dismissal would be applied for. We anticipated that it would be approved. There were reasons that we put due process and TESS [the Teacher Excellence and Support System] into the contract, so that our members are protected regardless of whether the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act and the Public Employee Fair Hearing Act are in place or not.”

Advertisement

Earlier, when Poore was asked by the state board whether he wanted a waiver to the fair dismissal law — and whether he wanted it to apply just to the district’s “D” and “F” schools — the superintendent was circumspect.

“Do I think we have teachers who are poor performers? I do,” he acknowledged. But he said he was concerned about how it would impact trust among teachers, and he echoed earlier comments from the Pine Bluff superintendent that removing fair dismissal put the district in “uncharted territory.”

He also told the state board that the grievance process in the professional negotiated agreement was robust enough that the district wouldn’t be able to fire large numbers of teachers at once, even if it wanted to. If his administration sought to fire one teacher from every school in the district, he said, “our buckets will be full just that first year.”

After the meeting, Poore reiterated to a reporter that the district would throughly review any potential termination before proceeding. “We have to look at things where people really aren’t performing, their performance is really not even close to standards, they’re not interacting with colleagues and their culture’s not good. If there’s something that’s really, really awful, we’ve got to then use this tool, I guess, to try to move forward,” he said.

“But … my target is to make sure that we really vet those things … before we ever finalize or formalize a termination,” Poore added.

Gordon clarified after the meeting that details about the fair dismissal act applying just to “D” and “F” schools, or a timeline for when the waiver would apply, were never a part of the LREA’s negotiated agreement with Key. But, Key’s public comments did shape expectations.

“We didn’t negotiate anything about teacher fair dismissal other than we put the language into the contract that said they have the right to apply for a waiver. Which is [state] law. … That doesn’t mean we supported it, it doesn’t mean we agreed with it, and it doesn’t mean we were negotiating anything around it. What we negotiated were protections in the case of that happening. Johnny Key said to multiple news media outlets that it would not happen until ’19-’20, that it would only be applied to the D and F schools, and that it would be used ‘as a scalpel, not a chainsaw.’ And those are direct quotes.”

And does she take Poore at his word that he’ll use terminations sparingly and judiciously?  “I have absolutely no reason not to trust Mr. Poore at this point,” Gordon said. “Johnny Key broke his word. Mike Poore did not.”

Sarah Moore, the state board member who made the motion to waive the fair dismissal law districtwide, declined further comment after the meeting. 

Advertisement