'THEY DON'T CARE ONE THING ABOUT CONTROL:' Little Rock School District Superintendent Mike Poore says district parents and kids care more about improving their schools than who controls the district. Brian Chilson

Little Rock School District Superintendent Mike Poore spoke to members of the Political Animals Club at the group’s luncheon on Wednesday at the Governor’s Mansion about the “state” of the district. Poore spoke about how families care more about improving schools than who has control of the district, and said he believes the district can get out of Level 5 support by next year. He also shared his concerns about the 2020 school board election. 

Poore began by talking about statewide issues affecting district schools, including the need for better mental health services for teachers and students and bipartisan legislative efforts to create an adequacy model for funding education in the state. When he shifted to speaking about Little Rock specifically, Poore prefaced his comments by saying he understood that club members had differing opinions about the district and could react favorably or incredulously to his statements, but asked them to “take a big step back.” 

Poore reminded the crowd that when he was first appointed as superintendent in June 2016, “there wasn’t the warmest welcome when I came in,” saying that former superintendent Baker Kurrus had just been let go and “it looked like I was Jim Walton’s cousin.” Poore said that while “walking the community,” both upon his arrival to the district and during recent walks, he learned the true priority of parents and children: improved schools, not control.  

“I can tell you one thing: Our parents, our kids, they don’t care one thing about control. They want a better school,” Poore said. “They want their kids taken care of. They want to have a place that can be their own, and that we continue to find ways to improve. That’s their No. 1 thing.”

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Poore said that the district is currently in an “intense struggle,” but added that the “sad reality is that there’s been tense struggles in this community for years, and that’s probably hampered efforts, and sometimes hampered involvement.” He said some of the “most extreme voices” on “both sides” of the issue of the district’s leadership “have not gone out into the community and walked those schools in and out and talked to folks,” so they haven’t seen the “realities” of the district’s needs or efforts of a “positive nature” that have occurred. 

The superintendent also lauded Mayor Frank Scott Jr.’s intervention in the conflict. He described the October vigil at Central High School, which was attended by thousands of parents, teachers, students, community members and faith leaders in protest of the State Board of Education’s plans for the LRSD, as “an amazing snapshot of what our community can be,” saying the “No. 1 priority” of attendees was to “keep the district whole.” Poore said Scott came forward two days later with a plan to “keep the city together” with emphasis on community schools, which Poore said is “really what we need to focus and have our attention on” instead of being “distracted by some of the politics because, again, kids and parents simply want to have a better school.” 

After sharing “data points” about the district’s improved graduation rate — from 74 percent in 2017 to 82 percent in 2018 —  and the more than $27 million in volunteer hours worked by community members, Poore said he wanted to talk about “facts,” saying that “a lot of people” in the community “don’t get everything that’s gone on.” He said the State Board of Education “did modify and they did listen” and “instead of breaking the district apart, they kept it whole” and “moved forward with having local control come back in 2020.” Poore said the State Board set “two limitations” on the return to local control: the first being that the locally elected school board can’t hire and fire the superintendent while the district is under Level 5 support, and the “bigger controversy” being that the Little Rock Education Association, which the Board voted to no longer recognize as the bargaining agent for district teachers on Oct. 10, can’t become the bargaining agent once again until the Level 5 control “comes off.” 

(Editor’s note: Aside from those specific limitations, while under Level 5, the State Board can intervene in a local board’s decision-making at any point the State Board wants. State Board member Chad Pekron has also recently suggested that the local board should be prohibited from making employment decisions on principals and the superintendent and that the local board shouldn’t be able to engage in litigation.)

Poore emphasized that these are the “only two limitations” and “all the rest of it comes back.” He pointed out Teresa Knapp Gordon, president of the LREA, who was present at the luncheon and said that a success that gets “lost in the weeds” is that the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act, which the Board voted to waive in December 2018, has been restored. 

Regarding district teachers, Poore didn’t speak directly about the LRSD teachers’ strike on Thursday, Nov. 14, during which over 10,000 of the district’s 23,000 students were absent and large crowds of students, teachers, parents and supporters protested the State Board of Education’s treatment of the district and the LREA. Poore instead said that “through all the drama trauma — and I’m not just talking about last week, I’m talking about the drama trauma for a while — I’m very proud of the professionals I see.” 

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“Now, is that perfect? No. But there’s not administrators that are perfect, and there’s not boards that are perfect,” Poore said. “But for the most part, our teachers do an amazing job, and they’re caught in the middle of a lot of things. Being caught in the middle, and the politics of things, that hampers us from [the thing] I keep trying to come back to, the [fact that] students and parents just want to have a better school. They want to have an improved environment.” 

Poore said that within the district, “we have a lot of old wounds,” saying that some of those wounds are “super historic” and some have developed in recent years. He emphasized the importance of people and entities within the community working together to “drive forward aggressively and … in a way that tries to take out some politics.” 

“I’m kind of getting on my soapbox now because I don’t understand why win-win is a bad thing,” Poore said. “I don’t understand why everybody working together isn’t what we should aspire to. I don’t understand the partisan politics that exist on a national level and then seep into our local level, and we need to eliminate it, folks, if we truly want to impact this education environment or our state’s environment.” 

Poore said “the best thing that we can do is have school” but that “every time people get into a disruption, it takes a little chink out of the armor” and slows down the “momentum” of progress. He also said he believes the district is on track to come out of Level 5 support, and it’s his goal this year to do so, saying, “We are so close, and we better understand, more than ever before, what we have to do to get to those targets.” Poore ended his comments by asking club members to stand up for the district when they hear people talk “disparagingly” about it, and again emphasized the importance of unity over the battle for control. 

“We actually can make a difference in this city right now if we just get rid of the concept of trying to control and [instead try] to move forward in an aggressive fashion of being together and working together,” Poore said. 

Poore then took questions from club members. One member, who said she was a grandmother in the LRSD, asked why the LREA is being targeted by the State Board of Education. Poore said he is “probably not the right person to fully address that,” but said he’s only ever worked in one school district where there wasn’t a teachers’ union or a negotiating agreement and that he believes such a union or agreement “helps both sides.” He also repeated a sentiment he said he shared when the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act was waived: “I just rolled up my sleeves and said, ‘I’m gonna guarantee, to this staff, that I’m going to be the fairest superintendent that I can be.’ ” 

Another club member, who said she’s a former teacher and a mother in the LRSD, asked Poore what it’s like “to be in a position where you are answerable to political operatives and not to the people of your district.” Her question received applause from the crowd, whom Poore told to “go ahead and clap.” Poore began his answer by saying that he hopes he is accountable to everyone in the community, and he “tries to be that person.” He paused for a beat before saying that “It is a misnomer, in my opinion, to say that this district is not better than it was five years ago,” pointing out that Arkansas has moved from an “F ranking” as a state, “in terms of its standards, systems and approaches to education” to a “C minus,” saying the state now adheres to the same “rigor of standards” as the state of Massachusetts. 

He also addressed the fact that eight schools in the LRSD are now considered to have “failing” grades, up from the six schools with such grades before the state took over control of the district in 2015, saying that “it’s a whole different set of benchmarks” — to which the woman who asked the question said, “Oh, we know!” — and reiterating that he believes the LRSD can get out of Level 5 support next year. 

“To be real … it’s hell being in the middle,” Poore said. “I’m a history teacher. In World War I, what do we call the middle? No man’s land. No man’s land is the worst place to be.” 

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Ali Noland, an LRSD parent who’s written for the Times, asked about Poore’s comment that the community is more focused on what’s best for kids and less on control, saying that the people who are passionate about local control care about it because they believe it is what’s best for children. She asked him to expand on “whether you think this is a distraction or … a very important issue.” 

Poore said his “big concern” about the issue of local control is that “we have such extremes [whose] big target is to fight for their way of wanting to do education” with “everyday people” in the middle. He said that because of “political infighting,” what he saw at the community forums that the Arkansas Department of Education held was “people didn’t want to say anything. They came to watch the trainwreck.” He said some people who attended those meetings were “afraid” to talk, which is “something that we need to take stock in as we move towards local control elections.” 

He said it’s “already anticipated” that the November 2020 school board election is going to “end up being a $2 million election because of the money that’s going to be used to try to gain the seats for a position that doesn’t get paid.” 

“We need people that are everyday people that are saying, ‘I want to have good conversations about education. I want to have conversations about what we will do to enhance community participation.’ That’s who we need running for the school board,” Poore said. “We don’t need the people that are just trying to get control, because this is a business, folks. This is a $350 million business. And so we have to have individuals that want to engage, and we can’t have them afraid to step forward and say, ‘I want to be a part of that conversation. A healthy conversation.’”

The last question was about the progress of the new Southwest Little Rock high school, which Poore said will be open in fall 2020 and described as an “economic engine” for the area, as condominiums and housing developments are being built around the school, as well as a new “regional business area group” established by the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce for Southwest Little Rock. The school will have over 1,700 students from McClellan and J.A. Fair high schools, which are set to close. Poore said the school will provide new facilities for students currently studying in poor conditions. 

“[At] McClellan High School right now, their air conditioning [is] a gap at the bottom of the floor that’s about 12 inches [wide]. That’s how their air circulates. If you do a science experiment and turn on the gas, you can only leave the gas on for 5 minutes before it overcomes you,” Poore said. “That’s not the state that did that. That’s what our community allowed to happen. That was under a board. So … I’m not afraid of a board, but I want to point out the fact that we have to go, right now, and continue the focus [on] what’s going to be better for kids. How can we make life better tomorrow.”