UPDATE: The state Board of Education retreated from the framework it adopted earlier for the Little Rock School District, but then it voted to oust the Little Rock Education Association as representative of teachers.
In short, teachers got shafted in the end in a choreographed plan that delivers what Gov. Asa Hutchinson has always promised the school “choice” lobby in Arkansas led by the Walton Family Foundation and others such as Walter Hussman, the publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. In short: death to the last functioning teachers’ local union.
But even larger questions remain about the retreat from a part of the divided-district framework has much practical benefit to true local control. The state Board gave every indication it plans to stay in charge even if a school board with as-yet-unknown powers is elected.
There’s already talk on social media of a walkout, but nothing has been announced. There’s no school Friday. A walkout would be welcomed by the governor as a bloody shirt to wave.
Teresa Knapp Gordon, LREA president, said after the meeting, “The State Board continues to demonstrate their incompetence by what they did today. The entire room was confused by what they said and the motions they made in the room today. The community and the teachers have spoken over and over. They have ignored everything they have been told.
“LREA is not going anywhere. We will continue to fight for our students. We will continue to fight for our educators.”
She said she’d be meeting with her members to determine next steps. LRSD students were already scheduled to be out of school tomorrow.
The framework plan would have left so-called failing schools in control of the state and reinstituted a school board in 2020, but with uncertain powers. Schools in poor, black neighborhoods would have been run by the state.
Board member Chad Pekron opened the discussion of Little Rock schools by saying it appeared the earlier plan wouldn’t produce unity. He moved instead for return of local control to a unified Little Rock School District. He said he liked some of things that Mayor Frank Scott Jr. and other city leaders had proposed for “full and complete local control.” That would include an understanding to work with the state on lagging schools and for the city to contribute financially for wrap-around programs in the needy neighborhoods.
Several hours of public discussion followed before a unanimous vote approving Pekron’s motion. Then it hit the fan.
Pekron, who’d last month delayed a vote on ousting the teacher’s union despite supporting the idea, said he still supports giving non-union teachers more of a say. But he said he thought the state board should not make that decision on union recognition and he moved to defer the decision to the school board, currently Education Commissioner Johnny Key.
The crowd was not happy to hear that the union’s fate would be put in the hands of Johnny Key, an anti-union former Republican senator who had to have a law passed to get this job because he wasn’t qualified by law. The Board wouldn’t allow public comment and the crowd grew unruly. At that, Pekron withdrew his motion and instead asked to take off the table Board member Sarah Moore’s motion from last month to decertify the LREA. Moore is former education aide to Gov. Hutchinson.
No comment was allowed, though non-voting board member Stacey McAdoo, a Little Rock teacher who is Arkansaas Teacher of the Year, objected. The vote moved ahead with little discussion. Moore’s motion was taken off the table and immediately adopted.
The crowd wasn’t happy.
Moore then followed up with a motion intended clearly as a sop — reinstitution of the teacher fair dismissal law in the district, taken away a year ago by fiat of Johnny Key. The board also proceeded to vote to ignore state law on personnel policy committees and put election of members under the control of an outside agency. This will diminish input from the teachers’ association on the committee.
This will be taken as an affront, it’s fair to say, to the thousands who gathered at Central High Wednesday night. A speaker blistered the board for acting without notice, public comment or explanation. She said there was no need for urgency. “You’re saying we will do it, because we can do it.”
Zook adjourned the meeting as the audience attempted to speak. They chanted “Shame, Shame, Shame” as the board left the room.
Before the big union-busting action at the end, an air of goodwill had generally prevailed.
Mayor Frank Scott Kr/ was called to speak first after Pekron’s surprise motion, suggesting that behind-the-scenes discussions with the Hutchinson administration produced today’s happenings.
“This plan can be inclusive,” Scott said. He was applauded.
No specific mention was made in the initial motion about the earlier proposal to decertify the Little Rock Education Association. Scott has said he supported the continuation of that arrangement.
People who signed up to speak continued to comment, though Pekron is an appointee of Gov. Asa Hutchinson and a solid Republican. It seemed clear his motion came as no surprise to those inside the system and that it was unlikely to face opposition.
Speakers variously supported the teachers union, complained of state discrimination by the state in serving black children and opposed more charter schools. Mike Poore, the superintendent, sounded somewhat surprised by events. He thanked Pekron for the motion and said it “honored the work we’ve been doing.” He noted how many positive things the state staff had said about district work in earlier remarks about test results. He also cheered the mayor. Poore has also expressed support for an agreement with the teachers union. The action today could alter his future, something he’s acknowledged previously.
The following paragraphs were written before the union-busting and I’ve added some revisions after that fact.
Take this to the bank: The community outpouring was heard at the highest level. REVISED: But the solution that was worked out won’t be cheered.
Take this also the bank: Big day politically for Mayor Scott. REVISE: It turned south at the end.
People with some insight say the change of direction could represent some division on the state board on the direction that had been mapped out by Education Secretary Johnny Key and Board Chair Diane Zook. REVISED But there was also talk of another motion floating around and it landed like an anvil at the end.
Some specifics remain to be worked out on the reconstituted district with a newly elected school board and no classification of various schools. Rep. Andrew Collins of Little Rock urged the board to continue to consider the people of the city in making decisions. In the end, that seems a forlorn hope.
Charles Zook, stepson of Board chair Diane Zook and a teacher, ripped efforts to beat unions and the billionaire-backed effort to “privatize education.” He noted his father, chamber of commerce executive Randy Zook, is on the board of the Walton-funded Arkansas Public School Resource Center, a charter school lobby. He noted Diane Zook’s nephew, Gary Newton, is head of another Walton-financed organization that has often criticized Little Rock and worked to create charter schools. Zook said the Waltons want to use their billions to build charter schools across the country. “It will be a crying shame unless you return LRSD to local control and to use state resources to support kids equitably rather than sell them down the river so some charter organizations can make money.” He was lustily applauded. ADDITION AFTER THE MEETING ENDED: His cynicism was warranted.
Pekron’s initial motion caused many who’d planned to speak not to speak or to shorten remarks. Rep. Tippi McCullough of Little Rock said, for example, there’s now a “unique opportunity” to create a united school district. (I’d earlier attributed her remarks incorrectly to a statement from former legislator Clarke Tucker. His statement was read by a parent, Eve Jorgensen.)
At least one speaker said diligence would be necessary to see if “buzz words” used today produced solid results. But no one opposed the Pekron motion. ADDED AFTER THE MEETING: A need for diligence became apparent sooner than anyone expected.
Vicki Hatter, a long-time activist in the school cause, invoked the words of Terrence Roberts, a member of the Little Rock Nine, in imploring officials not to brand students failures based on test scores. She was one of many who questioned the test-based system by which the state devises a single-grade system for schools.
I had to wipe tears while hearing from a Central teacher, Kimberly Crutchfield, who recounted her own path as a 13-year-old single mother, disowned by her family. She credited teachers at Mabelvale Junior High and McClellan, long troubled schools given their populations of poor kids, for helping her make it. She rejected putting a failure label on children who are trying and the teachers who are trying with them.
Sen. Joyce Elliott spoke after a break that some significant commitment is necessary to create the community school model that’s been discussed. “It’s a very involved thing to do.”
THE FOLLOWING PARAGRAPH IS NOW MOOT EXCEPT FOR THE PART ABOUT BLOOD AND ITS PRESCIENCE ABOUT POSSIBILITY OF GIVING THE POWER TO BOOT THE UNION TO JOHNNY KEY: School board governance is key. An elected board eventually might decide on continued representation by the Little Rock Education Association. Then elections, and big money spending, could have a say. Meanwhile, remember this: Johnny Key is currently the Little Rock school board under trusteeship. He could single-handedly oust the union between now and January. Will he? Blood, at least of the metaphorical sort, will run in the streets if he does. OR IF THE BOARD DOES THE SAME I SHOULD HAVE ADDED.
“We can’t do it without our teachers,” Elliott said.
In the public comment period before the final votes, Elliott and a parent, Marie Mainard O’Connell, both emphasized the importance of details about selection and powers of an interim school board in advance of the November 2020 election. She urged the board to “perfect” Pekron’s motion and specifically address the teacher’s union. She said the proposal to oust it be tabled.
Sen. Will Bond said Pekron’s motion on the district should “be embraced.” The framework was bad, he said. Write a history about the future instead of the past, Bond urged. “Where we all go forward together.” This was before Pekron more or less put words of unity in the garbage can.
More predictive of the outcome was Michelle Linch, leader of an anti-union teachers association that has received Walton Foundation support. She used her time to tout her organization and to complain about the ability to expand her organization’s membership in the Little Rock School District. In short, she was there to criticize LREA. Pekron said when it came time to kill the union contract that he thought it unfair 30 percent of teachers didn’t have a voice because they weren’t members of the LREA. This is misleading. The contract it works on covers all teachers. No teacher is unable to speak or receive benefits of workplace protection.
Teresa Knapp Gordon, president of the LREA, came up several speakers later. She, too, invoked the history of segregation in the city and the sacrifice of the Little Rock Nine. She asked whether the board would punish children for where they were born, in poor neighborhoods of their city. She spoke, too, for continued recognition of the LREA. She said her organization has stood for children since 1950. She offered few words of praise and, as events proved, she was right to be restrained.
Ganelle Holman said trust had been breached so moving forward together wouldn’t necessarily be easy. In the end, she was proved correct. She also indicated the governor was off-base when he said race was not an issue in this debate. It is THE issue. She said she was concerned about gerrymandering of school board districts drawn for an expanded school board. “Please do not sell our kids to a corporation,” she said. Another prescient commenter.
About 4:40 p.m., public comment ended and the motion was restated for return of local control subject to a memorandum of understanding with the state. What might it cover? No one said.
Board chair Zook emphasized that the district would remain in Category 5, or in academic distress, and under intensive state supervision with state board ability to do as it pleases with operation of the district.
Zook said the motion was an outline and details remained to be determined on an interim board. She said the existing community advisory board would continue to work in its existing capacity. Zook raised the possibility that having a nine-member interim appointed board, up from seven, could have two at-large members. There was a ripple of unhappy murmuring about that. This would further tilt control of the districts to the rich and powerful and away from the poor minority neighborhoods. If it becomes a permanent reality, it will be ripe for a lawsuit, already being discussed by Rep. John Walker, the civil rights lawyer.
Pekron said his motion was intended only to show there was an “end game.” He and Zook said there was never an intent to privatize some schools (though the state board has approved them readily in Little Rock and Key fired a superintendent, Baker Kurrus, for opposing them.) He said he only wanted to eliminate any suggestion of a divided school district. “The end game is going to be one district under local control.” But he said there was a lot of work still to be done.
That motion was approved. And then all hell broke loose.