The day after protests erupted at a meeting on the future of Little Rock schools, nearly all of the attendees at a similar gathering at Saint Mark Baptist refused to participate in “break out” sessions with State Board of Education members. Instead, Anika Whitfield and Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen led a session on establishing a list of demands for the State Board, including immediately returning the Little Rock School District to local control. The larger discussion often tackled issues of race, including claims of institutional racism and white supremacy.
In her introduction, State Board of Education chairwoman Diane Zook said, “Some of those attending do not like the format of the meeting. We heard that last night. This is the format we chose because we were the ones planning the meeting.” She said if anyone in the audience wanted to set up his or her public meeting in a format of their choosing, board members would attend.
Zook then ran through a list of problems she said the board faced when it took over the district in 2015:
“Nothing was connected to the state system when we took over … We were not aware of the finances, the scheduling, the poorly maintained buildings. The teacher/admin evaluation was inconsistent. The curriculum varied from building to building. Students were not being screened for dyslexia, which was a violation of state law. Southwest [Little Rock] needed a new school and West [Little Rock] needed a secondary school. Beginning teacher salaries were among the lowest in the state. There were no magnet school policies. Some teachers and student absenteeism were chronic. No one was keeping pre or post data to see if the funds being spent were getting academic results. There was even a district plan that we discovered that was written in 2010 that was sitting on a shelf and collecting dust under the locally controlled school. This is a reason, not a good one necessarily, but it is a reason why it has taken this long to get to the real core of improving the academics in the LRSD.”
State Board member Charisse Dean, who, along with member Fitz Hall, has led each of the previous two meetings, then asked the audience to adjourn to “breakout sessions” elsewhere in the building for 45 minutes to be followed by a public comment period. This prompted a loud outcry.
Hill said the format was all about helping the board gather information. He said that at a roundtable discussion the night before, in which a small minority of those attending participated, he’d learned something: “A citizen said, have you ever considered having the mayor on the [school] board?” That suggestion drew scattered boos.
A woman in the audience told Hill he was a hypocrite for not holding charter and traditional public schools to the same standards. Hill told her she should save that perspective for the public comment period. She continued to call him a hypocrite. “Thank you for the compliment,” he said.
Griffen complained about the structure of the meeting.
“Judge, it was your meeting last night,” Hill said. “I’m asking you not to intervene in this one.”
That also prompted loud boos and shouts.
Zook, Dean, Hill and other board members in attendance, including Sarah Moore and Ouida Newton, then left the room along with a handful of attendees, including Jay Chesshir, executive director of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce; former LRSD superintendent and mayoral candidate Baker Kurrus; and charter school advocate Gary Newton, who is Zook’s nephew. I heard later from someone who went to one of the sessions that Kurrus spoke critically about the dual school system the state has created by authorizing so many charter schools in Little Rock as he has in the past.
After they left, Whitfield and Griffen took the microphones.
“We are here to let the empire know that we will not accept their ways anymore,” Whitfield, a longtime activist with the group Grassroots Arkansas and a podiatrist, said. She then read from a list of demands to the State Board:
1. Immediate return of the entire LRSD.
2. Local Democratic board elections this November or reinstatement of the previous board.
3. A memorandum of understanding with the Arkansas Department of Education that it will commit to doing no harm to the district.
4. Reopening of neighborhood schools that were closed in 2017 — Franklin, Hamilton and Wilson.
5. Modification of the LRSD Community Blueprint. No more school closed or consolidated.
6. Immediate establishment of a Little Rock student union and parent union.
Griffen suggested, “An immediate accounting of all finances and buildings that have been appropriated by the state of Arkansas in the Little Rock School District.”
When the discussion seemed to go off-topic, Griffen, who is also a pastor, said, “It’s important that we have our demands ready when the white supremacists come back. Let’s be clear: What we have been seeing is what white supremacy looks like. You have to be able to name the dragon if you’re going to kill the dragon. You have to name the demon.”
A few minutes later, state Sen. Will Bond (D-Little Rock) spoke up, acknowledging that he was going to say something that would probably be controversial. “We all want … the district to be returned to local control in one piece and if there are still allegedly failing schools when the exit criteria comes out then we address those schools immediately and with a community school atmosphere to lift those kids up. I disagree that the rhetoric on white supremacy is helpful. I understand I come from a different place.”
“Respectfully, senator, I have never heard of a white supremacist agreeing with white supremacy before,” Griffen said in response. “White supremacy is believing that your disbelief about white supremacy being unhelpful is helpful. … You don’t have the cultural connection to this issue. You have the political connection.”
Bond said he understood that he didn’t have the cultural connection. “All I’m saying is let’s focus on what we all agree on together and where we go from here together.”
Whitfield pointed out that those who have born the brunt of the turmoil in the district have been black and brown people. “That’s white supremacy,” she said.
Later, C.E. McAdoo, a member of the Little Rock school board when the district was taken over, said, “This is all about money.” He said the white power structure in the city and state didn’t want a majority-black school board in charge of a $300 million LRSD budget. “They did not and do not want black people in charge of the Little Rock School District,” he said.
When Dean and Hill and the other board members returned to the room, Whitfield read them the list of demands. Then Dean said, “I’m glad that you all had discussion down here. This is the portion of the meeting to allow the people who spoke upstairs.” There were many shouts of protest and chants of “the people rule” and “our meeting, our schools.” Griffen said, “You are not at a plantation meeting. We are not your slaves.” And Hill shouted back, “This is not your court.” They continued shouting at each other for a minute.
Eventually, some of those who did attend the breakout sessions spoke. One person derided what he described as the “push poll” the State Board has made available for the community to discuss Little Rock’s future. Another followed up by demanding to know who designed the survey and whether any outside groups had been consulted (one question asks whether private money should have a role in the district). The mic got passed around speakers at the front of the room. When Michelle Davis, a parent and former PTA president, had her turn to speak, Dean initially wouldn’t let Davis hold the microphone, perhaps fearing it would be passed to other members of the audience, but relented when members of the audience criticized her.
Davis offered an analogy. “Let’s say we’re in divorce court. This is one spouse and we’re divorcing, but we have kids and we need to take care of them. But we’ve gotta work with them. But we have to work together. … If there’s going to be a transition, we’re going to have to have a conversation [with the State Board members], not just yell stuff at people.”
Griffen quipped, “Sole custody.”
Ali Noland, a parent, lawyer and activist, asked the state board to bring a neutral, respected facilitator to its last two meetings. “There are people who want to give input, but right now the State Board does not have the trust or credibility” to allow that to happen. The next meetings are 6:30-8 p.m. Thursday at Longley Baptist Church at 9900 Geyer Springs Road and 5:30-8:30 p.m., Tuesday, Sept. 3, at the Arkansas Department of Education at Four Capitol Mall.
Ryan Davis, a parent, pastor and nonprofit leader, said, “The passions are high, the tensions are high, because the stakes are high. … I don’t care what anyone says, protest is a legitimate discussion. … Anybody who is appointed to a public body ought to be able to take the heat without arguing with people in the audience. We need someone to practice some civic humility instead of saying, ‘We’re going to shove our format down your throat.’ ”
As the meeting ran over 8 p.m., Zook said the meeting was officially over, but that she and other board members would stay as long as people wanted to speak, but Dean, who said in the introduction she was a member of Saint Mark, told her the agreement with Saint Mark was that the meeting would conclude at 8 p.m.