Members of the State Board of Education endured another night of harsh criticism at the fourth public meeting on the future of Little Rock schools, though this time the complaints had nothing to do with the format of the meeting. Board members Diane Zook, Charisse Dean, Sarah Moore, Kathy McFetridge and Ouida Newton sat largely silent at a table at Longley Baptist Church in Southwest Little Rock while parents, advocates and public officials repeatedly demanded a return to local control and ripped them for a variety of failures.
Ali Noland, a parent who wrote for the Times yesterday about a false media narrative suggesting that community division has defined previous meetings, spoke first and echoed points she made in her post.
“We have this opportunity right now to define who we are as a community. Look around,” she said. “When is the last time you saw this? When is the last time this many people of diverse backgrounds in Little Rock cared about the same thing and were willing to work together?”
She then asked that everyone hold hands with the people next to them and repeat: “We are in this together. We are one Little Rock School District. And we cannot be divided.” Everyone did.
Michael Mills, a UCA professor in the Education Department, told the State Board that the community didn’t trust it because of a lack of transparency regarding who created and will collect what Mills called the “push polls.” The board released two surveys last week as part of what it has called an effort to get public feedback on how the LRSD should be “reconstituted,” the only option under law likely to be available to the board after the five-year limit on state control runs out and one not defined by law. Mills also said the distrust stems from the lack of transparency on who created the LRSD Community Blueprint, a plan to dramatically change the district over the coming years, and “the clear and compelling evidence that those in authority have a preference for a future “charterized school district.”
As an education researcher, Mills said he was particularly frustrated that “our students are being judged on a standardized test that’s not culturally adaptive.” Someone in the crowd shouted out that Arkansas is the only state in the country to use the ACT Aspire test. Mills said, “I know. Alabama dropped it.”
Mills, who has written before that his son had attended Don Roberts Elementary, said in closing, “My son’s school will not be closed down. I could walk away and nothing would change. But that is not the Little Rock School District.” That note drew thunderous applause.
State Rep. John Walker (D-Little Rock), a longtime civil rights lawyer and champion of the equitable treatment of black students in the LRSD, gave a quick history of some of the ways the powers-that-be have worked to isolate and undermine black and brown students. He noted that Little Rock remains a divided city. “The city is just like the schools. No city can prosper without good schools. No city in Arkansas talks about the strength of its charter or private schools as an attractor.”
He ended on a hopeful note: “One thing I’m glad to see is, in the first time in my many years we have white folks speaking up for justice,” he said. “Getting the schools back means that we have the opportunity to … grow and learn. The community can learn how to live with a minority-majority city. … We need equality, we need a return to local control.”
State Sen. Linda Chesterfield (D-Little Rock) said she was appalled at all the talk of reconstitution. “You’ve already reconstituted the district. You’ve siphoned our schools off to every charter school that came along. You have made people believe that our schools do not perform by assigning them Cs and Ds when education is taking place. If you tell people they’re failing enough, they sometimes believe it.”
Later she asked, “Where is Johnny Key? He has not seen fit to attend any of these meetings. … I’m just sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen, who has been one of the most outspoken critics of the State Board at the last two meetings, said, “We have been watching you for the last five years. We have been waiting for the last five years. You flunked.
“Return the LRSD to full local democratic power. Please understand that is not negotiable. Because you have 100 years of Supreme Court law against you. Your lawyers know this. …” If the board declined, he told them, “Your names will go down in history in the political hell that Orval Faubus lives in. Deal with that.”
Marie Maynard O’Connell, a parent, spoke directly to State Board members from just a few feet away. At one point, she asked Zook to stop smiling. She also, to great applause, asked about Johnny Key’s absence: “Why is the one person who is really in charge an old white man who’s not from Little Rock?”
Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) talked aspirationally. “I’m not the least bit interested in these students being average because that’s not good enough. When we get our district back, I want us to decide we’re going to build our own world-class school ourselves. … I don’t give a rip what the state does or anybody else. These are our kids and we will have world-class schools.”
Sen. Will Bond (D-Little Rock), who is also an attorney, again disputed Zook’s previous assertion that the law does not allow the State Board to return the entire Little Rock School District to local control and call it reconstitution.
He also said, “We know there is a discussion of breaking the district up and taking part of it and holding onto it. I think that’s a terrible idea. You’ll be turning back the clock toward where we’ve been and none of us want to go back.” Instead, under local control, with the community working together, Little Rock could have the “most successful, most diverse, most high-achieving district in the state,” he said.
Colin Jorgensen, a LRSD alumnus and parent, said that he got a world-class education in the district, one that was unmatched by college or law school. “That’s not what I love most about my time in the LRSD. What I remember most and carry with me to this day and will carry with me for the rest of my life is being in school with rooms like this,” he said, alluding to the diversity present. He said he was appalled at the notion that plans were being considered that would divide the district. (UPDATE: He expanded his remarks in a guest post for the Times.)
Another parent and alumnus Ganelle Holman delivered such a thoughtful, eloquent message, I’ve posted a written version with her permission.
LeRon McAdoo, a teacher and parent, said, “The buck stops with the governor. I challenge you to email, text, go ahead get on your Twitter right now and tell the governor you want local control in Little Rock.” To the board, he said, “I don’t know if your hands are tied or you got too many strings, but tell the puppeteer to let the LRSD go.”
Angela Alexander, a parent, said the board had shown “disrespect” of teachers and the board had been “micromanaging” teachers.
“Micromanagement leads to an epidemic of stress,” she said. Teachers aren’t getting the support they deserve and have to deal “with a great lack of equitable funding,” she said. She cited aging technology that often leaves teachers spending half an hour to boot a computer. That elicited a number of shouts of, “That’s right!”
Zook said that final meeting, 5:30-8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 3, at the state Department of Education auditorium in the State Capitol complex, would begin with another public comment period for an hour and then move into the board discussing among members ideas on the future of the district.