Simmering unhappiness about the state of Arkansas’s retention of control over the Little Rock School District, perhaps forever, continues to put Mayor Frank Scott Jr. on the spot.
Unhappy Little Rock School District supporters have targeted Scott for criticism over state Board of Education action directed by the Hutchinson administration. There WILL be a school election in November, but the board that will be elected will have restricted powers and continue to be subject to override on every decision by Asa Hutchinson’s education czar, Johnny Key. It will be prohibited, among others, from controlling who’s superintendent; for staffing and work rules for certain schools, and from entering an agreement with the Little Rock Education Association.
Scott has been participating in talks with the state about future district operation, with a particular focus on supporting a broad array of support services for schools with greatest needs. This is welcome activism from a city government too long uninvolved in the success of the school district.
But Scott’s participation has made him the focus of critical questions, including why the district must wait until November to elect a board and in the meanwhile be subject to whims of a “community advisory board” hand-picked by the Republican administration. Scott has already distanced himself from the draft memorandum of understanding on district operations issued early this week by Key. Last night, he issued this statement on school elections:
“One of the key tenets of our local control proposal to the State Board of Education was November 2020 school board elections. On Oct. 10th the Board voted to return the Little Rock School District (LRSD) to local control and hold school board elections during the November general election. Since then, I have received many questions from the community about why the election couldn’t be held sooner. After research of Arkansas law regarding school board elections, I’d like to provide details about the process of setting and holding school board elections.”
Q. Couldn’t the state have set a special election?
A. The state allows elections for school board during primary or general elections, and only allows special elections concerning the tax rate or debt issues.
Q. Why didn’t the state call for the election to be held during the March primary?
A. Having an election in March would have required public notice of a March 3, 2020 election in July 2019, and candidates would have been required to turn in petitions with voter signatures and file papers to run November 4-November 12.
Q. Will the 2020 school board elections return local control?
A. Yes, the residents of Little Rock will have the opportunity to elect their school board members. However, as long as the LRSD is considered a level 5 district, needing intensive support, state law permits oversight by the Arkansas Department of Education. That is why it is imperative we create the Community Schools Model to increase students’ academic performance at our most challenged schools.
“I highly recommend that Little Rock residents who want a fuller explanation of the law to contact their state legislators. And continuing in the spirit of full transparency, the ADE will provide a timeline of the elections process, taking us from November of this year through elections next year. I look forward to continuing to work on behalf Little Rock residents to move the Little Rock School District back to full and local control.”
In short: Don’t blame me. Blame the state.
Some background: A change of department legal opinion pushed this school board election until November 2020. Under a previous opinion, that election could have been held in March, shortly after the end of the five-year state control period. But a change of legal opinion presented to the state board eliminated that possibility.
The state retains control of the district under criteria established by the state Board of Education. That broad power doesn’t augur well for local authority. The state may continue to exercise this control, even if, say, a single school falls short on test scores out of nearly four dozen.
Bottom line: To say the election in November returns local control is not accurate.