The State Board of Education, at the request of chairwoman Diane Zook, has added to its Thursday monthly meeting agenda consideration of Little Rock School District high school zones. I think that can fairly be read as a sign that Zook will push for the State Board to direct Education Secretary Johnny Key, who acts as the LRSD school board while the district is in state takeover, to ignore the recommendations of the LRSD administration and order the district to expand Pinnacle View High School in Northwest Little Rock to grades 9-12 next year and add a full complement of extracurricular offerings.
The State Board had previously planned to continue discussing the reconstitution of the LRSD Thursday. According to its agenda, that will also include whether to move forward with a memorandum of understanding between the LRSD, city of Little Rock and the state Department of Education; whether the LRSD Community Advisory Board should be granted authority from January 2020 until after elected LRSD school board members can be seated at the end of 2020; and how election zones should be drawn to accommodate nine school board members, rather than the seven of the past. A work session last week hinted at the direction State Board members might go on those items.
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Zook’s move to add high school zones to the agenda follows a marathon Community Advisory Board meeting last week, where CAB chairman Jeff Wood devoted a lot of effort to convince the CAB to recommend that Pinnacle View become a full, traditional high school next year. He failed. His motion received three votes for and three against. A seventh CAB seat is vacant after an advisory board member stepped down earlier this year. As its name suggests, the CAB is merely an advisory board. Key has final say, and after someone in the meeting said that the State Board would make the ultimate decision on high school zones, LRSD Superintendent Mike Poore clarified to say that it would be Key’s decision.
But state law gives the State Board wide latitude to insert itself into just about any facet of the operations of a district under state control. At a State Board work session on the future of the LRSD last week, Zook again talked as if she would like to be LRSD superintendent. She told the board that she wanted to see Pinnacle View be expanded to a full high school next year. But she got general pushback from new board member Chad Pekron, who said he was wary of “micromanaging” the LRSD. He said he understood the State Board had broad authority, but said, “We have lots of authority that I don’t think we necessarily need to exercise.”
The last time Zook tried to shape somewhat narrow aspects of the LRSD, she found little support from her colleagues. It’s possible that the majority of the State Board will resist Zook on philosophical grounds.
But there are plenty of other reasons for them not to overturn the LRSD recommendation.
A building adjacent to Pinnacle View Middle school now has about 60 ninth graders. The district plans to expand it by one grade in subsequent years. It has a capacity of about 400, according to LRSD officials. The state Department of Education has said the district can share some facilities and programming with the middle school until Pinnacle View High expands to include 11th grade, according to Kevin Yarberry, LRSD operations director. At that point, the high school will be required by the state to make “significant changes,” Yarberry told the CAB.
Kelsey Bailey, LRSD chief financial officer, told the CAB that the LRSD has about $21 million remaining from its $92 million second-lien bond fund, but those funds have all been designated for capital improvements throughout the district, including restroom, roof and HVAC renovations at school buildings throughout the LRSD.
Wood then went fishing.
“In a worst-case scenario, where money had to be moved from one prioritization to another to accomplish a great vision at Hall or the west, we have some money that could be moved if it had to be, rather than fixing windows at one facility or whatever?” he asked.
Bailey quipped: “Depends on how great the vision.”
Jay Pickering, principal at Pinnacle View, told the CAB it “would be nearly impossible” to expand to a full high school next year. He said he wouldn’t be able to recruit students and teachers in such a short window and also said it wouldn’t be fair to move away from a school-of-innovation model that the ninth graders currently enrolled have bought into. Under that model, he said Pinnacle View High might have pep rallies, but for a robotics team, not a football team. Pinnacle View High is being conceived as an “alternative” high school, he said.
The discussion of the future of Pinnacle View at the CAB saw the usually unflappable Poore grow exasperated. He said the district and its many aging buildings had many, many needs and not enough money to address them. That coupled with a decline in enrollment made it hard to move the LRSD forward. “We’re trying to operate and it doesn’t work,” he said. Expanding Pinnacle View incrementally was a smart and efficient move, he argued.
Wood said repeatedly that the district couldn’t afford not to expand the west high school as many of the kids who attend Pinnacle View Middle School go outside the district for high school. Poore conceded that the LRSD would eventually have to expand out west either with new construction or with the settlement of the Pulaski County Special School District desegregation case, which might allow the LRSD to annex Pulaski County schools south of the river, including Joe T. Robinson High School, which is only about 3 miles from Pinnacle View. But he said he couldn’t in good conscious recommend a traditional west high school for next year.