A legal battle over the future of the Little Rock School District may be brewing.
The State Board of Education held its final meeting on the future of Little Rock schools Tuesday night at the Department of Education. The premise of the previous four meetings was that, nearly five years after the board took over the LRSD because six of its schools had chronically low test scores, the board will soon have to decide what next to do with the district.
In February, the education department set “exit criteria” for the district to return to local control that few believe the LRSD has any chance to meet. The criteria include qualitative and quantitative measures; the latter takes into account test scores, which are due to be certified Oct. 15. If the district fails to meet the exit criteria, the law requires the board to either annex, consolidate or reconstitute the district.
Annexation and consolidation are not considered viable options. Members of the board and education department told the public at the previous meetings that reconstitution wasn’t defined by law and said they wanted community input on how to define it.
Few attendees engaged in that push. Instead, the meetings have largely been marked by anger from the community at the board for not doing better by the LRSD and not returning it to local control. The public comment periods of Tuesday’s meetings followed a similar pattern.
But in between community input sessions, a state Department of Education lawyer told the board that, when considering the future of the LRSD, board members must remember the Arkansas Supreme Court’s Lake View ruling that the state has the responsibility to ensure every student has equal opportunity to receive an adequate education. Board chair Diane Zook has previously cited the Lake View decision as a legal obstacle to the board returning the entire district to local control if there are schools that don’t meet the exit criteria.
Education department lawyer Courtney Salas-Ford seemed to echo Zook.
“While the administrative management of schools can be deferred to an elected board under local control, the General Assembly has assigned the State Board of Education the ultimate responsibility for maintaining a constitutional system of public schools,” Salas-Ford said. “You must keep in mind this authority and responsibility when considering the future of the Little Rock School District.”
Salas-Ford also said that, while the law does specify five years as the time for a district to demonstrate that it’s no longer in need of the highest level of state support, “the mere passing of a five year period time does not absolve the state of its statutory duties.”
She said that, while Act 930, which deals with issues of accountability, does not define reconstitution, it is defined elsewhere in law as the “reorganization of the administrative unit or governing board of directors of a school district” and “removing permanently or suspending on a temporary basis the superintendent of the school district or any particular board members of the district with the state board having the authority to appoint an administrator who will call for the election of new school district board members to provide governance for a school district or both.
“These definitions are not considered in the applicable law,” she continued. “They may be considered as guidance, but they are not binding on the state board.”
Salas-Ford also reminded the board that its decision on the future of the Little Rock district must not run afoul of the requirements of the desegregation settlement agreement approved by U.S. District Court in 2017 to redraw high school attendance zones based on written, race-neutral rationale, no later than 2020.
Later, speaking before the board, state Sen. Will Bond (D-Little Rock) disagreed with Salas-Ford’s legal analysis.
“Clearly, reconstitution is defined in law. To jump over that definition and come up with your own definition outside of the code is not proper legal reasoning and not typically how the court would look statutes. … I think it’s strained,” he said.
Bond said the board was limited by law to reconstitute the district either by removing and replacing the superintendent or removing and replacing the board. In the case of the LRSD, Education Commissioner Johnny Key acts as the LRSD board. Perhaps he could be removed? Several speakers directed their ire in his direction and noted his absence at the previous four public forums.
“If you want to consider other things, you’re going to have to really jump throw some legal hoops,” Bond told the board. “You’re going to have to be creative. It’s not going to be an action that’s driven by the law. It’s going to be an action that’s driven by your gut or just what you want to happen.”
Key told the audience that the materials the education department has provided the board members as they think about how to proceed on the future of the LRSD would be on the department website, but they don’t appear to be there yet.
UPDATE: Here is a link to the materials, including the legal analysis Sallas-Ford read to the board.
In the public comment period that opened the first hour of the three-hour meeting, state Rep. Clarke Tucker (D-Little Rock) said he knew the state’s commitment to public education, but asked, “Why does that have to come at the expense of the people of LR having a voice in their own community and how their tax dollars are spent? Why can we not work together to provide a world-class education for the students of Little Rock? The message to the people of Little Rock with the current dynamic is, ‘We know better than you on how to educate your children and how to spend your tax dollars.’ ”
Veronica McClane, a licensed clinical social worker, said she was reading from a letter on behalf of 85 others in her profession throughout the state. The group demanded that Arkansas, like 31 other states, develop its own assessment test. It also demanded counselors in every school; community-based health centers; evidence-based trauma training for school employees; and implicit bias training for Key, State Board members, administrators and teachers.
Parent Tim Jackson asked the board what its departure point would be when thinking of what next to do with the LRSD. He said talking about attracting new industry or school choice were worthy conversations, but he said it was important for the board to think about what sets the LRSD apart.
“The most important organizing principle is that there is only one entity in this city that has the moral, legal and ethical obligation to provide a transformative education environment for every child that shows up, regardless of their race, their gender, their immigration status, their religion, their mental and emotional and physical capacities.”
Michele Linch, the executive director of the Arkansas State Teachers Association, a union-busting “professional association” that’s gotten substantial funding from the Walton Family Foundation, did not identify herself as the head of that organization. She spoke critically about how the district handled more than 30 years of desegregation payments.
“If money was the answer, we have a three-decade $1.3 billion experiment that says there’s more to it,” she said. “What was meant to advance equity and kids’ learning, seems to have advanced adult and organization’s agendas and bank accounts instead.”
She said it was time to transition the LRSD to local control in a manner that has “strong accountability and monitoring from the state.”
Parent and advocate Ali Noland said she was frustrated that the board was providing no guidance on what the community can do to get the district back. “You are measuring with those exit criteria the job that you have done,” she said.
State Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) said it seemed clear to her that these meetings were just for show and members of the board and education department officials were planning a charter achievement district for the so-called failing schools. She said the community should be able to have the district the state took over in 2015 back. “That’s not possible because you charterized it so much,” she said.
Advocate Anika Whitfield told Key she was glad he’d finally showed up to a meeting about Little Rock schools and chided board member Charisse Dean, who lives in Little Rock, for not better representing her community.
Along with Key, Zook and Dean, Kathy McFetridge, Bret Williamson, Ouida Newton and new member Chad Pekron were present. Sarah Moore and Susan Chambers phoned into the meeting. Fitz Hill was absent.
After an hourlong public comment period, the board had a work session, in which Zook questioned various education department officials on how the district was progressing on central office reorganization and implementing literacy curriculum. Newton and McFetridge asked a few questions while other board members remained silent.