The Little Rock School District Community Advisory Board will hold a special meeting tonight at 5:30 p.m. at district headquarters, 810 W. Markham St., to discuss new high school zones.
As its name suggests, the CAB is only an advisory body with no real authority, so its meetings haven’t often been of consequence, aside from being the venue where LRSD officials discuss policy and budget matters. But, if you’re invested in the future of the LRSD, tonight’s meeting is worth attending or livestreaming via the district’s webpage of Facebook page.
The meeting also gained an extra layer of importance after the State Board of Education, during a work session yesterday, discussed giving the CAB the same authority an elected board will have after November 2020. The State Board also discussed further ways in which it might restrict the board, including preventing it from recognizing the teachers union again, from firing the superintendent and from engaging in litigation. The State Board took no formal action yesterday, but in discussion about giving the CAB authority, some State Board members wondered if CAB members would even want the added authority and directed Education Secretary Johnny Key, who acts as the LRSD school board while the district is under state control, to direct Superintendent Mike Poore to check in with CAB members.
I’m sure that’ll come up tonight, though it’s unclear whether there will be much public discussion on it. LRSD advocates are likely to be deeply wary of a CAB with more authority. For one, at least two of its members, Maria Chavarria-Garcia and LaShannon Spencer, have been absent more than they’ve been present in the last two years and another member, Jocelyn Craig, has resigned her position after rarely showing. Only Chairman Jeff Wood, Melanie Fox, Anthony Hampton and Chavarria-Garcia remain from the seven board members initially appointed by Key. Local Democratic legislators complained at the time that Key ignored all of their suggestions and instead only picked names put forward by Republican (now former) legislators Andy Davis and Jeremy Hutchinson.
Fox and Wood, both Republicans who have been sympathetic to the so-called education reform agenda favored by the Walton Family Foundation, have been the dominant voices on the CAB. Fox has said she won’t run for school board; Wood is expected to. Both would likely welcome authority.
But community members will be out in full force to hear about high school zones. The LRSD has put forward three options. In each one, Hall High becomes a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) magnet school. In options 1 and 2, it would operate as purely a magnet school with no attendance zone and Central, largely, would absorb its old attendance zone. In options 1 and 2, new school Pinnacle View gets a small attendance zone for high school. In option 3, Hall retains an attendance zone, which would expand to include areas now zoned for Central High, including parts of Stifft Station and Hillcrest, and Pinnacle View doesn’t get an attendance zone.
Option 3 has inspired a lot of outrage from parents in Hillcrest who want their kids to go to Central or whose kids now go to Central and might be forced to transfer to Hall midyear. They’re likely to be out in full force tonight.
I predict that Poore will recommend options 1 or 2. He’s repeatedly acknowledged that Hall will only be successful if the LRSD can make a reimagined Hall “pop” in a way that makes Little Rock families seek it out (like nearby Forest Heights STEM, which was reconstituted as a magnet without an attendance zone several years back). I think he knows that forcing families into a new school isn’t the way to do that. Wood, who lives in West Little Rock, is very eager to see a West Little Rock high school (as is State Board member Diane Zook), so he would likely push back on option 3. In fact, it’ll be interesting tonight to see whether or not he advocates for the district to expand Pinnacle View into a full high school in 2020. Poore has said he will recommend expanding it and Hall High’s magnet offerings one grade at a time.
At a Hillcrest Resident’s Association meeting Tuesday, Fox said she was leaning toward supporting Option 1, but also said she would be proposing another option that wasn’t as extensive as the proposals from Poore. She said she’d like to see Southwest High School open and little else happen. It’s unclear if something like that would meet the criteria of a legal settlement that requires the district to redraw high school boundaries using race-neutral rationale by 2020.
Fox and others are also likely to press Poore on how Central, which is already over capacity, will be able to handle absorbing more kids if options 1 or 2 are recommended. State Board member Chad Pekron quizzed Poore yesterday over how quickly the LRSD would be able to advertise specifics about what Hall High’s magnet problem would look like. The district has extended the deadline for magnet enrollment until Jan. 17. Poore told Pekron a plan would be ready in January without being more specific.