STATE BOARD OF ED: Education Secretary Johnny Key, Board chair Diane Zook and Charise Dean. Brian Chilson

At last Friday’s State Board of Education meeting, Arkansas Teacher of the Year Stacey McAdoo spoke powerfully about the challenges she has faced teaching children who are experiencing poverty and trauma. She spoke of her love for her students and their families and the methods she uses to inspire and encourage them. One of those methods McAdoo described was the use of historical and literary quotes to illustrate the point she is trying to help her students understand. In honor of the brilliant and brave McAdoo, I will begin this piece with a quote as well:

“Those who seek absolute power, even though they seek it to do what they regard as good, are simply demanding the right to enforce their own version of heaven on earth. And let me remind you, they are the very ones who always create the most hellish tyrannies. Absolute power does corrupt, and those who seek it must be suspect and must be opposed.” — Barry Goldwater

I think you can already see where I am going with this, and if, like me, you dislike hyperbole in politics, you may already be rolling your eyes. “Absolute power”? “Hellish tyranny”? Isn’t that language a bit extreme when talking about the State Board of Education? Well, hear me out and then decide for yourself. Consider the following evidence that the State Board is veering dangerously into the realm of unchecked power:

Despite well-reasoned legal arguments presented by attorneys such as Sen. Will Bond (D-Little Rock) and former state Rep. Clarke Tucker, the the State Board of Education has taken the position that the term “reconstitute” is not defined in the statute governing the state’s takeover of LRSD, and that the State Board can therefore define it to mean anything it wants. Equally as troubling, the State Board was required by law to set exit criteria to govern how long it could retain control of our school district but failed to do so until more than four years into the state takeover. When it did set those criteria (unilaterally without any public input into how our readiness for local control should be measured), it erroneously tied our ability to regain local control to one standardized test that was never intended to be used for this purpose: the ACT Aspire. This test is a poor measure of student achievement, and it is in no way a measure of whether the Little Rock community is capable of successfully governing our own district.

Advertisement

The State Board has undertaken a series of actions against the objections of many Little Rock residents: It fired superintendent Baker Kurrus for challenging the state’s expansion of charter schools in Pulaski County, closed and consolidated several of our schools, waived Arkansas Teacher Fair Dismissal Act protections for LRSD teachers and staff, and finally, ceased recognition of the Little Rock Education Association as a bargaining agent for teachers. The State Board has repeatedly limited meaningful public input on these issues by providing very little public notice of its meetings, making surprise motions on consequential issues, and holding its meetings during the school day, meaning that teachers could not attend. Finally, the State Board temporarily adopted a plan to divide our district, which it only abandoned after thousands of Little Rock residents protested at Central High and national news media disparagingly likened the state’s plan to resegregation.

Now the State Board has released a draft MOU that would indefinitely prohibit the Little Rock School District’s elected school board from exercising meaningful authority over our schools. On Thursday, Nov. 14, board member Chad Pekron suggested revisions to the state’s draft MOU, which would simplify the document but would further restrict the powers of a locally elected school board (Pekron called these restrictions “guardrails,” an insulting euphemism for something as consequential as legal restrictions limiting the authority and autonomy of a locally elected governing body). Pekron suggested that, in addition to not being allowed to hire and fire personnel, or negotiate with the teachers union, the State Board should also prohibit our locally elected LRSD school board from “engaging in litigation.”

This latest addition to the list of powers that could be stripped from our locally elected board is both significant and baffling. Does that mean that if a contractor, say the company that operates school buses or supplies curriculum materials, doesn’t uphold its end of a bargain, our school district would be barred from suing to enforce its contract? I doubt that is what Pekron had in mind. His idea is likely aimed at preventing the district from becoming engaged in the kind of expensive and prolonged litigation we have seen in past decades.

Whether you believe those prior lawsuits were valuable in protecting important constitutional rights or you think they were a waste of time and money, there are three key things to remember: First, deciding whether or not to engage in litigation is a policy decision that should be made by the people of Little Rock after open and public debate. Second, Pekron’s proposed restriction would also bar the locally elected school board from suing the state to regain full local control of our district. While parents and community members might still have standing to raise some of these claims on their own (assuming that they can afford to self-finance litigation against the state), I know of no precedent for a state-level governing body prohibiting a locally elected entity from seeking legal relief from the courts. Third, the proposal is blatantly self-serving, in that it prohibits the school district from filing a lawsuit against the very people who seek to enact this restriction, the members of the State Board. I hope that this proposal raises huge red flags with everyone across the state that the State Board of Education is considering barring a local school board’s right to access the judicial system. This would set a precedent that every district in the state of Arkansas should be afraid of.

Moreover, the restrictions that the State Board has proposed placing on our elected LRSD school board are arbitrary and punitive. The State Board has stated that these restrictions would remain in place as long as the district is classified as Level 5 — in need of “intensive support” — but these restrictions have nothing to do with support. This is paternalistic control, plain and simple. As former State Board member Mireya Reith said at the candlelight vigil at Central High, “They think they know better than us.” As a parent in this district, I find it thoroughly insulting that my state government believes that I cannot be trusted to make decisions about what is best for my own children and my community. The people of Little Rock do not need “guardrails” to protect us from our own decisions.

Moreover, “support” should mean help, but the State Board’s proposed restrictions aren’t even aimed at helping us improve student outcomes. Is the State Board really saying that prohibiting us from recognizing the teachers’ union will improve student growth scores? That barring us from setting our own budget will help reduce chronic absenteeism and tardiness? That restricting us from making hiring and firing decisions for our own district will somehow increase volunteerism in our schools? Does it  actually believe that prohibiting us from taking legal action to challenge these indefinite restrictions will somehow cause test scores to go up?

Advertisement

Also troubling is the fact that the State Board has waived generally applicable state education laws in order to take the actions it deems appropriate for LRSD. In October, it waived several laws governing the creation of LRSD’s personnel policy committee. While these waivers were initially presented as necessary to adjust the time-frame by which a PPC must be in place, they also addressed the method by which the PPC would be elected.

Then, on Friday, Nov. 15, the State Board went even further; it voted to abandon all the work that LRSD had already done (and had paid outside consultants to do) in preparation for electing the PPC. In a tie vote that was broken by Chairwoman Diane Zook, the State Board required the LRSD to completely revise and restart the PPC-election process, wasting our tax dollars and angering parents and teachers who had already spent time and energy preparing for the election.

Why did the board take such a seemingly bizarre action? Because Chairwoman Diane Zook said that she was concerned that the Little Rock Education Association (the teachers union) had released a slate of candidates it was supporting, and she predicted that if the State Board simply allowed the democratic process to proceed as scheduled, too many union members would be elected to the PPC. Zook said that teachers who had chosen not to strike on Thursday were “not going to have a chance [to be elected] because the members of LREA outnumber those who are not.”

Superintendent Michael Poore objected to the change and Secretary Key stated that he supported the current plan for an eight-member PPC, but four members of the board voted to circumvent the democratic process yet again and rework the PPC framework in order to stack the deck in favor of nonunion employees. Chairwoman Zook broke the tie, and the motion passed by one vote.

What makes the State Board’s actions on Friday so egregious is its shocking refusal to allow parents and community members to be heard on the PPC issue prior to voting. Not only did the board prohibit public comment prior to their vote, Chairwoman Zook instructed the Capitol Police to remove a community member, Dr. Laura Danforth, from the meeting for requesting that the board listen to the community before reaching a decision. She, I, and many others had come to Friday’s meeting specifically to speak on the PPC issue and had signed up to make public comment regarding that particular agenda item. (While many of us had spoken the day before on Pekron’s suggested changes to the MOU, no one had been able to speak regarding the PPC plan because the State Board did not present its proposal until Friday.)

Zook surprised us by telling us that we would only be allowed to comment at the end of the meeting, after the board had already voted on the issue we wished to address. When Danforth, who has attended and spoken at most of the recent State Board meetings and would be immediately recognizable to the board members as a proponent of full local control for LRSD, asked the board to allow community input before voting, her request was denied and she was removed from the meeting. She was not shouting, nor was she trying to prevent the board from conducting its business. She was asking the Board for permission to utilize the designated public-comment process to raise her concerns regarding an issue on which they were about to vote.

Notably, Danforth is not the first LRSD community member to have been removed from State Board meetings for voicing opposition, but in this case, a striking photograph of a police officer escorting her toward the door ran in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and the basis for her removal (asking the board to hear from the public before voting) was so blatantly unwarranted that even people who have not been closely following these issues could see that the board was silencing public input. The photograph of her removal from the meeting went viral on social media and sparked significant outrage among the public. I imagine that the State Board is only starting to realize how much damage they have done to their credibility and to the public’s willingness to trust them going forward.

Allowing public comments before voting on the PPC issue would have cost the State Board absolutely nothing. The meeting would be the same length whether public comments were scheduled before or after the vote. Community input might have made a real difference in this instance. This was a tie vote, so if we had been able to sway even one board member to vote against the proposal, the motion would have failed.

Standing alone, each of these abuses of power might seem insignificant or justifiable, but taken together, they paint a very clear picture. Maybe “absolute power” is still too hyperbolic, but I would argue that we are already way too close for comfort. At what point will the rest of the state sit up and take notice? When will all Arkansans realize that this can and will happen to other school districts if we allow it to happen to Little Rock? You know that adage about how absolute power corrupts absolutely? Once the State Board sets the precedent that taking over a district allows them to do anything they want, do you really think they are going to stop with LRSD?

Advertisement