The state Board of Education continued today to demonstrate a desire to control the Little Rock School District.
It overrode a process set to begin today for voting on members of a personnel policy committee that talks to administration about employment issues. It voted 5-4 to expand the membership from eight to more than 40, apparently because of complaints from members of an anti-union group.
The committees are required by state law and the state Board had earlier mandated that the process be overseen by an independent outside agency. Nominations were due to be distributed today for voting on 250 people who’ve applied for the eight seats open to teachers and classified employees. Three administrators appointed by the superintendent also will serve.
Today, however, led by Board chair Diane Zook and member Sarah Moore, the board expanded the committee to have a member from every one of the district’s more than 40 schools. Superintendent Michael Poore said he’d received no complaints about the process and had received some 250 nominations for those to be elected. He said the change will require redoing the process and a delay in instituting the committee.
Zook and Moore said they had received complaints about the committee structure. Their comments before had indicated resistance comes from the Arkansas State Teachers Association, an anti-union group that has received Walton Family Foundation support and which has been an outspoken critic of the Little Rock Education Association, recently decertified as representative of teachers in the district. Zook confirmed that today. She said anti-union teachers had said only LREA members had put names forward to be nominated and she’d gotten complaints from teachers who worked yesterday while the LREA teachers had a strike. Zook said the people she talked with were fearful to identify themselves.
Stacey McAdoo, a nonvoting member as teacher of the year who’s a teacher in Little Rock, objected to Zook’s criticism. She said every teacher was reminded a number of times about the nomination process. It didn’t just go to union members. And she objected to Zook’s mention of communications from the LREA in support of some of those running for the committee. She said there’s nothing wrong with that. Presumably ASTA will do the same. Moving to change the procedure sends a bad message, she said. “This is what disenfranchisement looks like.”
Poore said he favored sticking with the original plan. Zook insisted that a bigger committee was better. She cited Springdale and Bentonville. Poore said a change would mean a new contract with the election consultant and cost more money.
Board member Ouida Newton said she might favor a representative in every school, but thought making a change now was not a good idea. Member Susan Chambers said the board should be leaning more toward local control, particularly since Poore favored the process. “I think it’s really important that Little Rock determines how they go about it.” This kind of action can be well-intentioned, but “misconstrued” as dictating to the district, she said. “If this is what the district thinks is right, this is what we should let the district do.”
Members Chad Pekron and Brett Peterson, calling in late by phone, said they supported more members. Member Kathy McFetridge made the motion to reopen the nominating process and expand membership to one per building.
A district patron, Ali Noland, sought public comment. The Education Department attorney said a motion to allow public comment was necessary. No one on the board made a motion and Zook ordered removal of anyone attempting to speak.
Before the vote, member Charisse Dean said she felt as Chambers did and that Poore should be allowed to go forward with an eight-member committee. She said the committee could change in the future if it seemed necessary. She noted that McAdoo had said there are building-level representatives who can work with the personnel policy committee. Said Dean: “Being that the process has already been started, and this is what we voted on before and those names will be released at 11 o’clock today and the process would have to start over, I have an issue with that — not allowing the district to move forward.” She said it wouldn’t be helpful to the district to “impede” the process. Newton repeated what she’d said earlier because Pekron and Williamson were not on the phone when she’d made her remark. She said teachers seemed excited and “I don’t want to do anything detrimental to that.” Member Fitz Hill also said the Board should vote to support what Poore wanted, the eight-member committee.
Education Secretary Johnny Key said he’d worked with an eight-member personnel policy committee in the Pulaski County School District and it had worked reasonably well. A union was decertified in that district after a state takeover, too.
The motion was adopted 5-4, with Zook breaking the tie. Dean, Hill, Newton and Chambers voted no. Moore, Pekron, McFetridge and Williams voted yes.
In short, a group representing a tiny percentage of Little Rock teachers effectively dictated policy through the state Board which has claimed it has returned local control to the district. The next time you hear any of them, or the governor, use the phrase “local control” you may laugh. Pekron, particularly, gave a speech yesterday in which he said more local control was better, but with “guardrails.” Here’s yet another one to add to his list.
In other business, the Board put off until December an idea to expand the membership on the existing Community Advisory Board from seven to nine members, to conform with the size the state Board has dictated for the Little Rock School Board to be elected next November. The state Board has never explained why it wants to expand the board from seven to nine members, but critics have suggested it is being done to increase the odds that a majority of board seats won’t be held by black people in the majority-black district. There are also objections to expanding the current Community Advisory Board with two at-large members until the board is elected. It is widely distrusted because Republican politicians controlled appointments.
The Board also took no further steps on firming up terms of the memorandum of understanding by which the district will operate after a board is elected. The state Board favors a number of limitations on board power, including control of the superintendent and a prohibition on entering a contract with the teachers union. Member Chad Pekron also wants a prohibition on school district litigation. There’s also disagreement on how much control the state would exert on operation of “community schools” — low-scoring schools that are to be targeted with extra help.
In reports from Board members, McAdoo asked the board if any of them had encountered things she’d encountered: death of a parent or child, students charged with crimes and in jail and more. Her point was that teachers are underappreciated and written off by policymakers as lazy and selfish. She objected, too, to reliance on standardized tests from rewarding or punishing schools.
She said teachers too often are ignored. “If teachers don’t have a true say about decisions affecting them you can’t use the word community.” She got loud applause from the audience. The only Board comment was from Zook who said she agreed with her about evaluations based on answering questions about something after a quick reading. Perhaps so, but it hasn’t stopped her from taking over, and retraining control of, the Little Rock School District precisely because of standardized tests scores in some, but not all, Little Rock schools.
When public comment finally was allowed at the end of the meeting, the Board got an earful of criticism. It began with Ali Noland, mother of two children in the district.
She blasted the board for voting without taking public comment. “You all have lost every bit of credibility to ever talk about community engagement and community input. You chose to vote before hearing our input. That tells us that what we have to say doesn’t matter.
“Our input could have changed one mind. Instead of listening to us you took a vote and then allowed us to make a statement after the fact that will have no bearing on the outcome.”
She complained that no one knew the specifics of proposals on the personnel committee and other items until today. She said the board had moved the goalposts on the personnel committe because it didn’t like the outcome of the democratic process. At some point, she said the Board will have to let the democratic process prevail.
Another speaker asked Zook why “private personal conversations carry more weight than voices of people on public record.” Thousands demonstrated yesterday, she noted, but Zook and Moore cite unnamed others as influencing their views.
Julia Taylor, a parent in the district, urged the board: “Listen to what the people have to say and take it into account.”
Another speaker said it was “appalling” to hear Zook characterize strikers as teachers who don’t care about children.
Michelle Linch, who heads the Arkansas State Teachers Association, said she would have spoken in favor of a representative in every school. She complained of LREA influence in the process.