Diane Zook and Education Commissioner Johnny Key Brian Chilson

On Thursday, at a marathon meeting of the State Board of Education, the board voted to waive the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act for the Little Rock and Pine Bluff school districts. The fair dismissal law, enacted in 1979, provides due process protections for school employees with a teaching license. It’s designed to keep teachers from being targeted for personal or political reasons and, as several people in the public comment period yesterday mentioned, provide cover for teachers to stand up to administrators when they, say, try to quash a student newspaper story.

In Pine Bluff, the waiver won’t go into effect until the 2019-2020 school year. In Little Rock, it goes into effect immediately. Superintendent Michael Poore has promised to use his new power judiciously.

Meanwhile, board member Diane Zook’s sweeping list of proposals for the LRSD was met with little enthusiasm from her fellow board members. Only her plan to have the state Department of Education audit the LRSD special education department passed.

In the wake of such a consequential day, here are a few critical questions and attempts at answers.

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Where did the waivers for Teacher Fair Dismissal originate?

Signs point to the idea originating from Education Commissioner Johnny Key, who, of course, serves at the pleasure of Governor Hutchinson. I suspect these moves represent trial balloons to see just how outraged the public and teachers are in advance of a push during the upcoming legislative session to kill the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act outright.

At yesterday’s State Board of Education meeting, it seemed clear from testimony from Pine Bluff Superintendent Jeremy Owoh and Little Rock Superintendent Michael Poore that neither of them had asked the Department of Education or the state board to grant their district a waiver from the fair dismissal law. Both, in fact, expressed unease about being granted the power to more swiftly fire employees at the symbolic cost of alienating them.

The first talk of waiving the fair dismissal law came from Key in October, when he refused to approve a new contract between the Little Rock Education Association, which negotiates on behalf of teachers, and the LRSD. Key cited as a reason for the waiver the low accountability scores of 22 LRSD schools that received a “D” or “F” in the state’s new Every Student Succeeds Act framework. “The district needs greater flexibility to address staffing changes in the struggling schools than what the negotiated agreement currently allows,” Key said at the time, explaining why a waiver of the law limited to those 22 schools was necessary. Key also said cryptically that he’d long been subject to “pressure” to “do away” with the LREA. He didn’t say who was pressuring him.

The LRSD and the teachers union ultimately reached a contract agreement, which included some due process protections less stringent than those contained in the fair dismissal law.

Then, on Dec. 10, the Arkansas Times discovered through a Freedom of Information request that, under a vague item on the state board’s agenda for its Dec. 17 meeting, board member Diane Zook planned to introduce a proposal to waive the fair dismissal law for ALL of the LRSD. For that item to get on the board’s agenda, in a manner clearly designed to keep it out of public view, Zook would’ve worked with Key or members of the Education Department.

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The ultimate motion yesterday to waive the fair dismissal law in the LRSD for all employees came from Sarah Moore, who recently served as Hutchinson’s education policy adviser. Moore lives in Stuttgart now, but she’s a Little Rock native and a product of the LRSD.

Why didn’t LRSD Superintendent Michael Poore come out more forcefully against waiving the fair dismissal law?

It was hard, watching yesterday’s marathon state board meeting, not to feel enormous sympathy for Jeremy Owoh, an Education Department employee only recently installed as Pine Bluff superintendent, and Poore, who’s been embattled since he took charge of the district in 2016. Especially Poore, who had to parry Diane Zook’s endless parade of motions to micromanage the district. His tireless and passionate defense of the LRSD during that long stretch was clearly key in beating back nearly all of Zook’s agenda.


But, with board members exhausted after eight hours, much of that taken up by emotional public comment, Poore waffled when asked pointedly by several board members whether he wanted the waiver to the fair dismissal law.

He repeatedly said he was OK with having it for the “D” and “F” schools because that’s what had been previously publicly discussed with the union. After a long section in which board members talked of whether the power granted by the waiver would be applied using a “scalpel” or “hatchet,” Poore said he didn’t want a “hatchet” in his “toolbelt” at all when it came to teachers.

But board member Fitz Hill asked Poore repeatedly whether he needed the waiver, and Poore never told him that he didn’t.

Why? I don’t know and can only speculate. Poore seemed to be making the case that there was no great need for help in firing employees and noted that the more limited due process protections negotiated by the LREA would also amount to a lengthy process. Maybe all along he’s been advocating for the waiver in backrooms. Or, maybe he knows that eliminating the law is on the governor’s legislative agenda and that taking a stand on it would have put his job in jeopardy. After all, Poore’s predecessor as appointed superintendent, Baker Kurrus, was fired after he publicly opposed the expansion of two charter school operators in Little Rock.


Is there hope for supporters of the LRSD who are tired of seeing it attacked and desperately want to see it returned to local control?

Though the deck is clearly stacked against them (see question No. 1 above), I see some hope. Amid what was, on the whole, an interminable proceeding, there were all sorts of riveting moments, especially during the long public comment section, which I’ve teed up below. I wish someone would edit the eight hours into about 30 minutes. It would be must-see TV.

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That some 200 people showed up at the meeting, filling two overflow rooms, and that almost 40 people spoke during public comment, the vast majority of whom were LRSD advocates, clearly made an impact. The short speeches from parents, teachers and community members were powerful and erudite. Former state board chair Sam Ledbetter, who made the deciding vote to take over the district in 2015, argued forcefully against the board’s attack on the LRSD. That surely resonated with board members and others.

I think it’s unquestionable that the community response played a significant role in pushing back against Zook’s unsuccessful overreach into the district.

It was also noteworthy that Brett Williamson, a Murphy family-connected businessman who’s long been viewed as an “education reform” movement cutout, made the motion to waive the fair dismissal law in Pine Bluff and voted for it, but ultimately voted against the waiver for the LRSD. He also acknowledged that it was clear the public didn’t trust the board in its dealings with the LRSD. Charisse Dean, an employee of the right-wing Family Council who typically sides with the board majority, also appeared to be moved by public sentiment. She, too, supported the waiver for the Pine Bluff district but opposed it in the LRSD. While members Susan Chambers, Kathy McFetridge and Fitz Hill ultimately voted for both waivers, each showed a lot of sympathy toward Poore and the district. But take all that with a grain of salt. The board has often talked sympathetically about the LRSD before voting to punish it. Talk is cheap; only votes count.

Crucially, there was no discussion of a timeline for a return to local control during yesterday’s meeting. An Education Department lawyer had said at a meeting earlier this year that elections would have to be held in 2019 to have a school board seated in 2020, but many suspect that Key and co. plan to move to stall elections until November 2020.

Restoring local control is a key point of focus for advocates of the district, who appear to be getting increasingly agitated and organized.


Where were Mayor-elect Frank Scott and other city officials?

I hear that Scott had a previously scheduled out-of-town engagement and did some behind-the-scenes lobbying of the board. The meeting was scheduled only a week ahead of time during one of the busiest times of the year. I know LRSD advocates and City Directors Capi Peck and Kathy Wells both had conflicts and couldn’t attend.

But Webb released a strongly worded public statement, and I’m disappointed Scott didn’t do the same — especially considering that he campaigned heavily on returning the district to local control and mentioned getting “our local school board back yesterday” prominently in his victory speech after he topped Baker Kurrus in the runoff on Dec. 4. He also argued during the campaign that Kurrus hadn’t always supported local control. A mayor who promises to unify the city needs to be visible in some fashion amid an unprecedented attack on the LRSD.

But as Scott’s backers are quick to say, what about Mark Stodola, who remains in charge of the city? He’s largely been publicly absent in the fight over Little Rock schools, so it wasn’t a surprise not to see him there — but he should have been. So, too, should all of our city board members (Lance Hines was there and signed up to speak, but left before his name was called).

State Sen. Joyce Elliott, Sen. Will Bond, Rep. Clarke Tucker and Rep.-elect Tippi McCullough all spoke movingly. Rep. Charles Blake didn’t speak, but was at the meeting for a long stretch. Republicans Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin, Rep. Mark Lowery (Maumelle) and Sen.-elect Mark Johnson all predictably spoke for the state board doing whatever it wanted to do with the districts.