The sun rose this morning, but it’s still clear the Hutchinson administration hijacked the Little Rock School District in a sneak attack yesterday. In the process, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, normally an open government bulldog, went toothless.
In extensive coverage of the meeting this morning, the D-G managed to overlook complaints from Sen. Joyce Elliott and former Rep Clarke Tucker that the Board of Education had violated the Freedom of Information Act by speaking in round-robin fashion in advance about the substance of the “framework” for district control adopted by the board yesterday.
Elliott objected to a vote on the framework given that the meeting was announced only 16 hours in advance and the framework wasn’t released until the start of the meeting. “This was given to you just as it was given to us,” she said.
Board chair Diane Zook objected. “Each of the Board members met individually with ADE in the process of this,” Zook said. Wow.
Realizing how badly Zook had stepped in it, Education Commissioner Johnny Key attempted a cleanup. “We had conversations with many board members as we do on many topics,” he said. These were conversations about “concepts and clarifications.” But he insisted the actual document wasn’t distributed until the board meeting.
That is a distinction without a difference. The deal was done. Note that no meaningful discussion by board members ensued about the red flags throughout the proposal: Expanding membership of the school board; limiting powers of the school board, and segregating “failing” schools in the poor and black part of town under control of the state Education Department, not an elected board. Private school management companies seem likely to be in the offing.
I made an FOI request for this document Thursday afternoon. I received no response, not even an acknowledgment of the request as the law requires. I couldn’t even get the state department to admit the meeting was about the Little Rock schools until shortly before 5 p.m. Thursday. I got the document at 9:02 a.m., after the meeting had begun.
You can imagine the caterwauling from the D-G had they been treated similarly on an FOI request. They’d have quoted legal experts at length about a failure to produce documents and about the court precedent that round-robin meetings of board members to arrive at decision-making aren’t allowed under the FOI. Not this morning.
Little Rock School District supporters like myself have a hard time accepting, but for publisher Walter Hussman’s support of destruction of both the Little Rock School District teachers’ union and a conventional public school district, that the newspaper would not have quoted more of Clarke Tucker’s stirring objection when Sarah Moore, the governor’s former education liaison, popped up with her unannounced proposal to bust the Little Rock teachers union.
Note, too, that Moore said in response to objections to her surprise motion that she’d had discussions with members of the board. It was again a suggestion of an FOI violation though her motion was tabled until October after a firestorm of protest. It will be approved in due course, that much is clear. Zook wanted to vote immediately. Chad Pekron said he supported the move, but not without advance notice of the union’s execution. Moore and Kathy McFetrtidge moved for immediate approval. No objection was heard from any board member.
A reliable source told me long ago the end to teachers unions was among school reforms promised by Hutchinson to D-G publisher Walter Hussman in a private meeting they had at the beginning of the governor’s tenure. Accurate or not, a cheery editorial should be coming soon on the topic of kicking the union out. Perhaps the editorialist could work in some mild encouragement for open government for appearances’ sake.
The video at top is the first part of the meeting, the framework discussion. After a recess came the discussion and ultimate tabling of the union-busting motion. That video portion follows. Note parent Ali Noland, at 2:23. She said the process “absolutely proves you are not trying to have input from the public.” Clarke Tucker follows at 4:30, saying what the board was doing was bad public policy and “morally wrong.” He explained in detail how the board had violated the FOI through one-on-one meetings with an administrator. This was not mentioned in the account by the state’s largest newspaper. Stick around for Superintendent Mike Poore’s careful objections to yesterday’s pre-emption of public input and his acknowledgment that the board didn’t seem to be listening to him. His future has to now be in question. Little Rock Education Association President Teresa Gordon’s emotional remarks are also worth a listen, particularly her reference to Sarah Moore staring at her and giggling during the recess.
Tucker called this action the “2019 version of the segregation of Little Rock,” 62 years after the Little Rock school crisis. For irony, it’s hard to avoid noting how the D-G, in running daily historic front pages from the Arkansas Gazette (the newspaper Hussman put out of business in 1991 but whose history he’s now adopted as his own) had the crisis at Central in Friday’s newspaper and, today, the front page from 1958 about the Pulitzer Prizes won by the now-dead Gazette for its coverage of the school crisis. The Gazette covered every element of the story without fear or favor. Today’s D-G coverage was more reminiscent of the 1957 work of its true ancestor, the Arkansas Democrat, which profited from business lost by the Gazette for endorsing the rule of law in its editorial pages. Today’s article, in its second-to-last paragraph dealt with the extraordinary procedures followed in holding this meeting:
Zook said Friday that the short public notice for Friday’s special meeting was the result of when board members could be available
It is to laugh.