HOPE FOR A NEW LR: Dr. Preston Clegg, senior pastor of Second Baptist Church of Little Rock, delivering the New Year's blessing at the inauguration of Frank Scott. Brian Chilson

Preston Clegg, senior pastor at Second Baptist Church in downtown Little Rock, has shared the following letter he sent to Governor Hutchinson, Education Secretary Johnny Key and members of the State Board of Education on the future of the Little Rock School District. I hear that he’s going to read from it at the 7:30 p.m. candlelight vigil at Central High School tonight.

Clegg popped onto my radar when he delivered a stunner of a prayer for the city of Little Rock at the inauguration of Mayor Frank Scott. He’s also recently been teaming with Philander Smith’s Tamika Edwards on regular discussions on race in Little Rock. Check out his recent discussion with state Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) on that topic and the LRSD here.

This Thursday, a proposal is before the State Board to return partial control of the LRSD to local constituents, while the State retains control of “F” rated schools. I’m writing, as a faith leader in Little Rock, to ask you to seriously and critically reconsider that option and return full and complete control of the LRSD to the people of the district, with no further contingencies.

When discerning the moral from the immoral, my faith leads me to ponder several questions. “What does it do to the least of these? Does it contribute to the common good and beloved community or does it hinder it? Does it tell the truth and is it based in reality? Is it equitable, just, and fair? Does it honor the image of God in all people?”

I believe the plan you are considering fails each of those basic moral questions. The plan before you fractures the district in pieces, largely down hyper-segregated lines. Thus, this option has a disparate impact on black and brown people and the communities in which they live, not to mention the fact that three schools south of I-630 have already been closed in recent years. There is a proper descriptor for policies and decisions that have an inequitable impact on black and brown people. The phrase is systemic racism, even when it is couched in the language of educational metrics and legal jargon. The plan before you is based on data and metrics, but it does not surround that data and those metrics with honest narratives about education, which does not happen in a vacuum. Students in struggling schools most often come from disadvantaged backgrounds, needing more grace, support, and assistance, not less. And the schools that have largely been failed are labeled as “failing,” which doesn’t tell the truth about the work of the teachers or the promise of the students in those schools. The plan before you grants the least amount of voice to those most impacted by your decisions, while giving the most say to those who will not be impacted at all. It renders the citizens of our city and the tax-payers of our schools without a duly elected school board, which is to say, without a representative voice. This option is neither fair, just nor equitable.

Since the state unilaterally took over the school board in January of 2015, the number of “failing” schools have only increased. Who is responsible for the trajectory of those schools and how should those people be held accountable? What was an unjust move in the beginning has proven to be ineffective in the end. Furthermore, at least two motions have been presented since that time to weaken the voices of teachers and the collective voice of their union. We are not putting our students first if we are putting our teachers last. And we dare not praise teachers for their sacrificial, honorable, and essential labor out of one side of our mouth while attempting to weaken their own voices out of the other side. This is a time to surround and support our schools and teachers, not patronize them.

When I listen to the people of Little Rock and the primary stakeholders in this decision, I do not hear multiple messages or varied perspectives. I hear one, clear, loud, and singular chorus of voices saying, “Give us back our schools.” Our students are saying this. Our teachers are saying this. Our administrators are saying this. And, as of yesterday, our mayor and city leaders are singing in unison as well. Today, I want to add my voice, as a pastor in this city, to this chorus of voices. I, along with other clergy in this city, have watched with grave concern about what has happened to public education in other metropolitan areas. We have seen large foundations strategically weaken public schools, only to begin charterizing and privatizing, thereby turning public education into a commodity in which students are seen as dollar signs and education is thought of in terms of profit margins. This is wrong. It is bafflingly short-sighted. It is unjust. And we will not allow this to happen in Little Rock without raising our voices.

I am the father of two students in the LRSD. Within my congregation, I pastor students in the LRSD (as well as private, charter, and county schools), teachers in the LRSD (including multiple teachers of the year), and people of faith who are deeply committed to our public schools at the individual and congregational level. And as a pastor in this city, I feel deep responsibility for the flourishing of ALL the district’s teachers and students.

For these reasons, I must ask you to search your souls and ask yourselves whether you are listening to the people of Little Rock or whether your ears are turned towards deep pockets with alternative agendas. I must ask you if you are prioritizing the voices of the people who are most directly impacted by these decisions, or if you are prioritizing the voices that stand at a distance but have the longest purse strings. If you are listening to the people, you will hear us say in one, loud, clear, and decisive voice, “Return ALL of the LRSD to the control and oversight of a duly elected school board.”

Sincerely,

Preston Clegg
Pastor, Second Baptist Church-Downtown LR
222 E. 8th St.
Little Rock, AR 72202
pclegg@2bclr.com