Protesters this morning at Pulaski Heights Elementary School. Brian Chilson

Hundreds of Little Rock School District teachers and other personnel are on strike today, picketing at schools and protesting the Department of Education’s decertification of the teachers union and refusal to relinquish full control of the LRSD. While the number provided by the LRSD administration today — that only 116 teachers and 20 classified (nonadministrative) personnel were “no show, no call” — television, twitter videos and visits in person by Arkansas Times staff suggest that total is shy of the numbers actually on strike.

A significant number of teachers — 491 out of 1,800, almost one in three — called in sick. Calling in sick to join a picket line would be considered an ethical violation of district rules, however.

UPDATE: Students stayed home in droves today from the LRSD, with an attendance of only 10,149 out of 23,337 students — only 43 percent in attendance. Only one in four high school students attended: 1,475 out of 5,903.

Sixty-one Central High School teachers signed a letter yesterday announcing their intent to strike, and they were joined by dozens of students and other supporters early this morning. They were led in chants by Alyce Zottoli, an economics teacher at Central High: “I don’t know but what I been told, public ed’s been bought and sold! I don’t know but it’s been said, Waltons run the Board of Ed!” 

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Brian Chilson
THE PEOPLE, UNITED, SHALL NEVER BE DEFEATED: Alyce Zottoli, an economics teacher at Central High School, leads protestors in chants during the LRSD teachers’ strike on Thursday.

As substitute teachers tried to cross picket lines, protestors stood shoulder to shoulder and yelled “Hold the line!” 

“What’s disgusting?” Zottoli called, leading the crowd’s response: “Union busting!”

Leron McAdoo, an art teacher at Central High, said he saw a couple of substitute teachers approach the picket line and pick up signs to join the protestors. McAdoo said he understands that protestors’ actions today are part of “one battle in a continuing fight.”

“I don’t know if it will change the [outcome of the] meeting today, but I do know that we’re fighting toward justice,” McAdoo said. “That arc toward justice that King talked about, that’s what we’re moving toward. So I’m going to continue fighting in that direction. Anybody that’s going in the other direction, God be with them.” 

Teresa Knapp Gordon, president of the Little Rock Education Association, briefly addressed the students, parents, teachers and supporters gathered at Central.

I love that you all are out here this morning,” Gordon said through a megaphone. “I know it’s cold. I know some of y’all don’t like cold. I see you students, you guys are beautiful. Let’s go, fight, win.” 

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Gordon also told reporters that while she doesn’t know how today’s protests will affect the outcome of the board meeting, “we know that this is the first battle of a long fight.” 

I think it says a lot that we’re united, and we’re standing together with the community, and the parents, and the students,” Gordon said. “We’re ready to fight this ’til the end.”

Gordon said that the LREA will likely make a decision later today about whether to continue the strike, but “all options are still on the table,” and such a decision will “depend on what our members want to do.” 

“We have been very selective about our actions,” Gordon said. “We know that we control our power; nobody else controls our power. They can’t force us to stay out, they can’t force us to go in. So we’ll make that decision as a membership and decide where to go from here.” 

McAdoo, Zottoli and other teachers continued leading protestors in chants, including one targeting Governor Hutchinson’s role in the actions of the Board of Education.

How do you spell wrong?” McAdoo asked. “A-S-A!,” protestors responded. 

Dozens of picketers are in front of the state Department of Education, as well. They were instructed to remove their protest signs from sticks by security officers: Typical of how we do things in Arkansas, guns are legal on state property; sticks are not.

Unending honks and thumbs up, including blasts from Little Rock police, sanitation workers, city buses and school buses, were sounded in support for the dozens of Cloverdale Middle School picketers standing at Geyer Springs and Hinkson Road. One car slowed down and handed donuts out the window; another pulled in with more donuts and peppermint candy canes. One car that slowed and honked bore a state Senate license plate with the number 2: State Sen. Joyce Elliott’s car.

School buses were mostly empty. “Parents want their kids to be safe,” Lakeitha Austin, who teaches career and tech education to eighth-graders at Cloverdale and is LREA secretary, said. She said “there’s no way” the district could provide adequate substitutes.

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“This is the area where most the schools that have the Ds and Fs [on ACT Aspire tests, the trigger for the ed department takeover] and this is the area they’re going to try to privatize under different leadership,” Austin said, referring to the Education Department’s support of charter schools. Of the more than 500 students who attend Cloverdale, 75 percent are on free and reduced lunch.

Austin noted the support the LREA has gotten from outside Arkansas: the Milwaukee teacher union’s “Overpass Light Brigade” tweeted an image of hundreds of teachers holding a lighted “Little Rock Strike” sign. Teachers in Anaheim are wearing red in support of Little Rock teachers, and Austin said that the LREA has received a donation from actress Susan Sarandon.

AT CLOVERDALE: Strikers, supporters.

Kathryn Daniel, the striking librarian at David O. Dodd Elementary School, said the walkout was necessary. “We have tried everything else. They [the State Board] have not listened, they have not made changes, and things have gotten worse.” In the four years the LRSD has been under state control, the number of “failing” schools has risen.

Brian Chilson
KATHARYN DANIEL: Striking is the only thing left for teachers seeking fair treatment. According to a state legislator, she’s a “thug.”

With the decertification of the LREA, Daniel said, “We are losing our voice.” She said she’s been told by friends in other districts that the personnel policy committee that would take the place of the union in disputes “was not at all the same. You can say whatever you want, but they ignore you. They’re not obligated to negotiate.”

Daniel said the LREA came to the aid of her and other teachers at Baseline Elementary several years ago when they were suffering under a “bully principal.” She said teachers were crying at work “almost daily” because of the actions of principal — who was eventually fired — and the union gave them support and made sure they were treated fairly. “I had someone protecting me.”

Daniel said the administration notified teachers in an email that they could not use a personal day to attend the State Board meeting and reminded them that should they picket after calling in sick they would be in violation of district policy. They have not been informed they’ll be fired if they strike, but she assumed it was a possibility. She planned to strike nevertheless, “because it is that important.”

“My whole family is on my insurance. This is not something I do lightly. It’s a big risk,” but the only option left to the union to reach what have been deaf ears.

Meanwhile, Republican state Sen. Bob Ballinger is calling the teachers and their supporters “thugs” and “bullies who don’t care about children” on Twitter. Go back to Berryville, Bob, and stay there, under your rock.