The second in a series of planned meetings on the future of the Little Rock School District quickly turned into a raucous protest Monday night at Don Roberts Elementary in West Little Rock. Several hundred people packed into the school’s cafeteria.
Diane Zook, chairwoman of the State Board of Education, delivered an introduction that was interrupted by calls from the crowd early and often.
To return to local control, the LRSD must meet a series of quantitative and qualitative measures that the state Department of Education released in February of this year. Zook later told me that she was “cautiously optimistic” that the district would meet those exit criteria in October, but other education policy observers believe the criteria were designed so that the LRSD would fail and give it no shot at meeting the criteria. If the district doesn’t meet the criteria, state law says the State Board must either consolidate, annex or reconstitute the district.
Zook explained in her introduction that consolidation and annexation were not considered viable options because the Pulaski County Special School District remains under a federal court desegregation order. She said reconstitution was not defined in law and explained that the night was all about discussing what it should look like and discussing “contingencies.”
“Local control, if the exit criteria is not met, is not an option,” Zook said.
In response, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen stood up in the crowd and said, “You’re saying you failed? If the school district is under state control and if we don’t go back to local control, it means the board has failed. … If you are planning to fail, say so!”
During the introduction, others in the audience shouted to Zook that the state had 4 1/2 years to implement positive change in the district and had failed.
“When we took over the district, we thought we had a solid foundation and all we’d have to do was take a building, put up some walls and put a roof over it,” Zook said. “What we discovered is the finances were not in order, the buildings were not well maintained, the teacher absenteeism was chronic, the student absenteeism was chronic and those are the things we started working on and now we are getting the training for teaching reading in a more scientific way… The Department of Education is in the building.”
State Board members Fitz Hill and Charisse Dean, both of Little Rock, then took to the stage and tried to continue with the meeting, but they were continually interrupted. “Free the LRSD! Free the LRSD!” members of the crowd shouted.
“We understand the frustration,” Hill said.
“No, you don’t!” came a shout from the crowd.
“We will have this meeting, and we will have it decent and we will have it in order,” Dean said. “We’re going to behave like adults and we’re going to have decorum**.”
Dean and Hill told the crowd that the plan was to for community members to have tabletop discussions on questions about what reconstitution might look like. Members of the crowd chanted, “Let the people speak!”
“Let me tell you right now,” Dean said. “The only way this is going to work is if we do a tabletop discussion. That’s the format for this meeting. If that’s not cool with you, we won’t have the meeting. I can go home.” A number of people told her she should do that. She then asked for a raise of hands of those who wanted to have a tabletop discussion. A few dozen hands came up.
So that group went to one side of the room and school security guards stood in front between them and the majority of the crowd and room. Other audience members, including state Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock), took the microphone for a bit, but ultimately someone switched it off.
During this stretch, I asked Zook why a return to local control wasn’t an option if reconstitution could mean anything. She said that the State Board would be opening itself up to a lawsuit under the Lake View court ruling — which found that the state constitution requires public education to be adequate and equitable — if the board returned the district to local control with a number of schools “failing.” There were eight schools that received an “F” grade under the state accountability system last year; updated scores are due in October.
State Sen. Will Bond (D-Little Rock) later spoke to the crowd and said that he thought the main argument was a legal one. He disagreed with Zook’s claim that reconstitution couldn’t mean a return to local control.
I talked to Bond after Zook told me her Lake View argument.
“Here’s the problem with that logic,” he said. “If the state has a responsibility to run all the F-rated schools in the state, then they have to take over all the F-rated schools.”
Last October, 44 schools in the state received an “F” grade and 145 got a “D.”
Later, someone brought a bullhorn to the front of the auditorium. Bond, Griffen, state Sen. Linda Chesterfield (D-Little Rock), and a few students talked. Elliott addressed those in the audience who were looking disapprovingly at the vocal protesters.
“There are people out there saying, ‘This is not going to help y’all get your school district back.’ You know what that sounds like to me? Like someone has decided how we’re supposed to act according to what they want. And if [you] don’t, we’ll punish you by never getting your school board or school district back.”
Elliott said she and other advocates had been politely in front of the state Board repeatedly over the last 4 1/2 years. She asked skeptics to consider how they would respond if a school in their neighborhood was closed (her district includes Franklin Elementary, which was closed in 2017). “You would not be nice,” she said.
With the bullhorn, Anika Whitfield*, a podiatrist and advocate, asked for a show of hands among the crowd if it wanted a return to local control and a locally elected school board. Nearly every hand went up.
“There is a word in English to describe taking control of a black-majority school district from a democratically elected black board and putting it in the hands of one white man from northern Arkansas,” Rabbi Barry Block used the bullhorn to tell the crowd. “You know what that word in English is? Racism.” He also said that it was a sign of racism that the board’s only two black members were leading the community forums. That drew the ire of Hill, who had the mic and repeatedly used it to try to correct Block by talking over him.
Zook told me that the board’s plan had been to hold roundtable discussions at every community meeting, but the space in which the board originally planned to host the meeting last week hadn’t worked out and the board had been forced to switch to a public comment format. The next meetings are 6:30-8 p.m. Tuesday at St. Mark Baptist Church at 5722 W 12th St, the same time Thursday at Longley Baptist Church at 9900 Geyer Springs Road and 5:30-8:30 p.m. at Arkansas Department of Education at Four Capitol Mall from 5:30-8:30 p.m.
*A previous version of this post misspelled Anika Whitfield’s name.
**A reader who attended last night’s meeting pointed out that I had misheard Charisse Dean and quoted her as saying, “We’re going to have a quorum” instead of “We’re going to have decorum.”