The State Board of Education discussed its options for returning the Little Rock School District to local control in a 2 1/2 hour work session Wednesday. Education Commissioner Johnny Key moderated the discussion, encouraged the State Board to determine a plan quickly and seemed to be directing the State Board toward a plan that would re-establish a local LRSD board while the state continues to provide support to struggling schools in partnership with the local board and district. Board chairwoman Diane Zook, as she has frequently in the past, continued to signal that she would like to intervene directly in the management and alignment of the district.
State law requires the state to set exit criteria for school districts it takes over. The Education Department determined quantitative and qualitative criteria in February for the LRSD four years after the State Board took over the district because of low test scores in six schools. The quantitative part of the exit criteria relies significantly on test scores, and preliminary results — due to be finalized in October — suggest the district will not meet the criteria. State law says that, after five years, if a district under state control does not meet the exit criteria, the State Board of Education must either consolidate, annex or reconstitute the district. It’s the education department’s legal view that reconstitution isn’t defined in state law (that’s not a view with which everyone agrees).
There was no discussion Wednesday of the plans LRSD advocates have most feared: splitting the district into two or more parts or bringing in a charter management organization to take over the district. Also, neither Key nor any education department officials mentioned the Lake View court decision, which Zook and a department lawyer have invoked in past meetings as a reason the state could simply return the district to local control and call that reconstitution.
Board member Susan Chambers asked Key if there remain low performing schools, could the state keep the district intact, continue to provide support and return it to local control and call that reconstitution?
Key said it could.
“If you have schools that are still in need of intensive support but other schools that are not,” Key said, “you could have reconstitution, where the division stays engaged in partnership with the district, working in those schools that need the most support, while the other higher-performing schools in the district are under full autonomy in the district.”
Department of Education lawyer Courtney Salas-Ford told the board that the earliest a school board election could happen was November 2020. The legislature recently changed state law to make school board elections coincide with primary or general elections. But she said that LRSD policy designates a November election. To shift to the election to the March primary, the law requires that the state Election Commission be notified 100 days before certain timelines for candidates. Sallas-Ford said that date would have been July 26 for a March 2020 election. For a Nov. 3, 2020, election, she said that the law would allow candidates to begin obtaining signatures for a petition to get their names on the ballot April 29 and the filing period would be July 26-Aug. 1.
Stacey McAdoo, who as the Arkansas Teacher of the Year has a nonvoting seat on the board, asked Key if the LRSD school board that was removed — which included her father-in-law, C.E. McAdoo — could be reinstated. Key said he didn’t know of anything that would prohibit that.
McAdoo later asked if a special election could be called.
Salas-Ford said that was a possibility, though she said those were typically reserved for millage or tax increase elections.
Board member Bret Williamson said that turnout was typically higher in general elections.
Chambers asked Key if Little Rock remains a district in Level 5 (“needing intensive support”) how a locally elected board and the State Board of Education would differ.
Key said the elected board would provide an avenue for the public to “feel more comfortable” voicing concerns. He said that was the intent of the Little Rock Community Advisory Board, but said there’s not been “that level of engagement that I believe there would be with an elected board.”
Board member Sarah Moore asked about the possibility of appointing a local school board. After the overwhelming majority of the response from the community forums indicated that the public wants a locally elected board, McAdoo asked why anyone would want an appointed board. Moore said she’d heard a suggestion that designated roles on the board be filled — by a teacher, the mayor, et al — at one of the community forum “breakout sessions,” a format that sparked widespread protest and little participation at community forums in recent weeks.
Board member Fitz Hill said he thought an appointed board could be put in place until locally elected board members were seated after a November election — if a special election wasn’t called. Zook asked about having the Community Advisory Board serve in an interim capacity.
New Board member Chad Pekron asked Key what would happen, if the LRSD remains under Level 5 support, if there’s a difference in opinion between the local board and what the State Board thinks.
“My hope is that we’d work together,” Key said. “What would happen if we came to loggerheads? If the locally elected board has authority, then the board has authority,” though he said that Act 930, the accountability law, provides the board with some areas of which it could retain oversight.
Salas-Ford told the board that it could limit the authority of the local board as part of reconstitution, but that the law required it to be very specific in what that limitation would entail. Moore asked if it could include curriculum. Salas-Ford said it could.
Moore talked about the stability LRSD Superintendent Michael Poore had brought to the district and asked about his contract. Key said it ran through the school year and decision about how to proceed from there were between him and Poore.
Later, Poore gave a spirited defense of the district’s progress, while crediting the state’s assistance, especially recently, on helping the district improve management operations, introduce new reading curriculum and improve its data operations.
He also said he was ready for a return to local control.
“This community is hungry to have a local control type situation,” he said. That’s what I signed up for, he added.
Zook, perhaps signaling again that she’s not ready to give up oversight of the district, said, “One thing I want to do is when there is a local board elected … I want to give that board a really well top-notch, well-run machine district, so they can go about doing things that impact the child every day, not all the stuff that has distracted us from academics.”
Asked about a timeline for the board making a decision, Key and Zook were noncommittal, though Zook suggested that the board’s plan could be framed in a way that was contingent on certain schools failing to meet exit criteria, suggesting the decision could come before the test results are finalized in October. Key recommended to the board, based on the feedback from community meetings, that it decided on a plan the sooner the better.
The Little Rock Education Association provided the board with its plan for reconstitution. It opens by demanding that the Department of Education and the State Board publicly admit that “they have not been successful in improving the LRSD and they have been derelict in their constitutional duty to provide LRSD with a concrete, achievable plan for exiting state control.”
Earlier at the former Franklin Elementary, members of Grassroots Arkansas, a group that has long advocated for local control for the district, again called for the end of state control, said it was inappropriate for the state to impose its will on the district and said it had collected more than 100 ideas for improving the district that it looked forward to sharing with a locally elected board. The group summarized its position here.