Brian Chilson
CAPITOL RALLY: A vigorous, chanting crowd gathered at midday today in advance of a state Board of Education discussion of Little Rock schools. That official meeting produced little comfort for scorned teachers.

Perhaps a third of the teachers in the Little Rock School District didn’t work today and nearly 60 percent of the students didn’t attend classes following the announcement of a strike by the Little Rock Education Association.

Pickets — teachers, kids, friends — demonstrated outside Little Rock schools. A big crowd demonstrated at the state Capitol (police made them remove the sticks on which they were stapled). Some children went to classes conducted by substitutes and teachers who didn’t strike, though it seems unlikely it resembled a conventional day.

All this was in advance of a state Board of  Education meeting at which future control of the district was on the agenda. There was no solid movement toward greater local control of the district than has been promised so far, with perhaps one exception.

The big news included the unveiling of new school attendance zones by Superintendent Michael Poore, information that likely won’t be available for public inspection until tomorrow. His detailed discussion would have been difficult to follow without a map handy.

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There was certainly no sign of a softening of the state Board’s opposition to the Litttle Rock Education Association. Chair Diane Zook continued to demonstrate for the minority of teachers who are not union members.

And then things got interesting following an extended round of mostly wholly critical public comment, save for a plea for immediate creation of a full high school for predominantly white Northwest Little Rock.

Among the items discussed, the Board:

  • Discussed expanding the district’s community advisory board from seven to nine members. It’s a powerless board, but it is to be expanded to match the size of the future elected board. It provides input to the state during the interim of state control. The two new members would be drawn from recommendations from the Little Rock mayor, subject to state Board of Education approval. There’s a vacancy on the board currently as well that must be filled. There were legal and other objections to the CAB, which is not trusted by many because it was controlled by Republican appointees. When it came time to vote on a motion toward the end of a lengthy meeting, the crowd began chanting “No taxation without representation,” and Board chair Diane Zook called a recess. Earlier Sen. Will Bond had questioned the legality of a board vote to unilaterally expand the board. Others objected to at-large members. This issue is still unresolved at 5 p.m. UPDATE: The board adjourned to take up issue Friday morning along with Zook’s desire to reopen application time for personnel committee seats to accommodate people who are NOT members of the Little Rock Education Association. It’s unclear how much discussion, if any was done, during recess and how that constituted a legal meeting of the board if they discussed anything. There was no Education Department personnel under their control they could have discussed during that time, even with a legal vote to meet in secret.
  • Discussed the shape of school board zones for a nine-member board.  Courtney Salas-Ford, a department attorney, described the basis for zones suggested — compactness, avoiding division of communities of interest, fitting with existing boundaries of other political offices to the extent possible. No decision was made today. Board member Chad Pekron said he thought the population variance (almost 5 percent in one district) needed to be narrowed on the preferred map. Education Secretary Johnny Key will make the final call, but there will first be public comment and review by the community advisory board.
  • Discussed the memorandum of understanding on the operation of the school district. Board member Chad Pekron said he had intended more of a move to full local control than the draft MOU reflects when he made a motion for a limited return of control several weeks ago. He said, for example, that he didn’t think the state should operate the community schools that will get intense help. But he said he does favor “guardrails,” where the board wouldn’t control principals, couldn’t litigate and couldn’t recognize a union. He also said the district needs a set of criteria for exit from state control “that anybody’s grandmother could understand.” He said he favored a revised memorandum. He also said he opposed a limit on charter schools in the district. Mayor Frank Scott Jr. has asked the state to place a moratorium on charter schools. Pekron said he didn’t think the board could do that. A law change would be required, he said.
  • Discussed expanding the personnel policy committee that will talk with administration, depicted by the State Board as an improvement over having the union negotiate for teachers. The committee was going to exist regardless of a union contract. A couple of State Board members said they wanted a representative from every school in the district, more more than 40 members. Board chair Diane Zook said she favored extending the deadline for applications to be a member of the first PPC so that more people who are NOT members of the LREA could apply. Stacy McAdoo, an ex officio member of the board as teacher of the year and a member of the LREA, commented that “it feels like this board is very anti-LREA, like it thinks it only represented the members and that’s not how it worked.”
  • Discussed the “community schools,” those most in need of improvement, that would get additionals services and financial support from the city and perhaps a private foundation and others. There’s some confusion about exactly what those schools are and, as noted, questions were raised about who’d control their operation. McAdoo said the community needed to be part of the decision-making. Pekron agreed that the city and district should be in charge, with the state just providing assistance.

Michael Poore, on attendance zones, said they were drawn first to avoid further segregation and also to enhance “school choice” options to attract more students who are now outside the district. The zones follow many ideas already outlined in a blueprint developed earlier.

The opening of the new Southwest High will bring in students now in Fair and McClellan, along with students who have been attending Hall in a program aimed at students who speak English as a second language.

He said the district would continue to develop an “innovation” high school at the new Pinnacle View Middle School in predominantly white Northwest Little Rock. It will have a ninth grade next year.

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Other big changes include the conversion of Fair High to a middle school. On the east side of the district, Rockefeller will become a pre-K center and elementary students will move to Washington.

In elementary also, Romine and Dodd would be closed and consolidated on the Fair campus.

At the middle school level, Cloverdale is envisioned as joining others in a new school on what is McClellan’s old high school campus. But Poore said the district is not able to make that move immediately. That would be something for the elected board to consider.

Poore discussed several options on high schools. In one, Hall would become a magnet school with a STEM and occupational focus, perhaps fed by the Forest Heights STEM middle school. The Central zone would grow by 456 students in one alignment. Parkview would remain a magnet. Another option draws an attendance zone for the expected Pinnacle High School with the Pinnacle Middle School attendance zone. Still another idea would shift some neighborhoods now in the Central zone into the Hall zone. Poore said he expected a lot of comments as people get a chance for closer looks. The hope is to get zones drawn for the next school year, which means time is short. As outlined, no high school student would be limited to a single attendance-zone school but be able to choose from multiple options.

The Board recessed. Public comments are coming and perhaps some more fireworks.

UPDATE: More in another post, but speakers are flaying the Board as “puppets” of the Waltons, trying to “gaslight” the community and otherwise disrespectful of the Little Rock School District.