The State Board of Education took up the Little Rock School District again today. Before it was over, it put handcuffs on the district for probably years going forward and delved into local control matters as small as renaming a school. All the while, people like board member Chad Pekron said they wanted to restore local control. There isn’t a big enough asterisk to fit that assertion.
At the beginning school czar Johnny Key, who serves as the school board under state control, seemed to be mostly following Superintendent Mike Poore’s outline for school zone changes, including at high school level. It added magnet status for the new Southwest High School and said the reorganized Hall HIgh would add a new distinctive feature as the district school to specialize in “e-sports” or electronic games, a growing activity in schools.
Here’s the high school zone and school realignment recommendation.
The board skipped over further discussion of a memorandum of understanding between the district, city of Little Rock and the state after agreeing that it was unnecessary at a work session last week. The matter of school board zones for the election next year was left for Community Advisory Board consideration. Key also recommended that the Community Advisory Board not be granted authority next year after LRSD Superintendent Mike Poore discussed the possibility with CAB members.
Board member Sarah Moore opened a new micromanagement front with a desire to fire staffs at J.A. Fair and McClellan, to be combined at Southwest, and the newly organized Hall, to be a STEAM school. Poore said it was a bad idea for several reasons, both legal and for the fact that the Hall faculty was performing well. No matter, the board voted to clean out the Hall faculty and make all reapply. Southwest was spared, in part because hiring there has already begun.
Board member Chad Pekron continued his doublespeak, claiming to be a local control advocate except on control of superintendent, personnel agreement with teachers and ability to go to court. Those limitations of board power were retained in his unanimous motion for how the district is to be “reconstituted.” And again, as long as it remains a “Level 5” academic distress district, the board can do whatever it wants at any time for an indeterminate period of time. Five years in and the district really has no solid criteria on what constitutes being categorized as Level 5 or shucking the label. The board believes it has the power to do whatever it wants.
Pekron proved a hypocrite again later when he joined board member Kathy McFetridge’s motion to rename the Pinnacle View High School of Innovation, which is to grow one grade a year, to ninth and tenth next year, as the West High School of Innovation. It currently has 60 students. She thinks a new name would build enthusiasm. She also moved to have it hire a new principal rather than continue with the existing principal, Jay Pickering, who opposed full-scale expansion to a full-service high school, in charge of middle and high school grades. Both these ideas were passed 5-4 over Poore’s objection with Fitz Hill of Little Rock joining the majority in overriding local control a couple more times. Pekron swore this was the last time he’d dip down so low into school governance. Sorry. I don’t believe him.
Credit Board members Brett Wiliamson and Susan Chambers, among the no votes, for publicly stating the board was overreaching.
These votes came without advance notice and followed a string of almost universal pleas for local control and criticism of the board, including Sen. Will Bond’s impassioned complaint about the chaos the board continues to engender, including huge changes to high schools almost five full years into state control. He complained that the district had jiggered with the process so that a five-year state control will stretch to six and still won’t be over with conditions Pekron’s motion set. Former Rep. Clarke Tucker cited chapter and verse of law, constitution and court precedent that suggest the board is acting unlawfully in wielding total control over the district. He didn’t specifically threaten a lawsuit, but the outline is readily apparent for one to be filed.
Only Jeff Wood, chair of the Community Advisory Board, broke from the public comments. He wants a full high school for his neighborhood in Northwest Little Rock. He said nobody in his neighborhood wanted to go to Hall, a statement that likely inspired criticism from another speaker about pandering to a small segment of the community while ignoring needier kids in decaying schools elsewhere. She suggested racism was a factor.
The crowd was warned twice not to ask questions, not to personally criticize board members and not to speak out of turn. At the end of the lengthy meeting, after the surprise votes on school naming and a new principal (which Poore said would cost money) few were left to voice further opposition. One critic of the Hall firings was removed from the room.
My account is woefully incomplete. I watched by livestream, which kept faltering throughout the meeting. (And they want to run a school district, down to worrying, in Board chair Diane Zook’s case, about school colors and mascots.) Lindsey Millar was on hand, but had to leave for a school program before most of the action at a meeting that stretched until almost 7 p.m. So I’ve reconstructed here as best as I could.
Short version, as Bond emphasized: The State Board of Education continues to micromanage the Little Rock School District. It intends to do so with no end in sight. Superintendent Mike Poore is a puppet to their whims.
Given tonight’s events, I’d predict there will be a move to make Mark Roberts, now at Hall and husband of the education liaison of Gov. Asa “Faubus” Hutchinson, to head the newly renamed West High School — if not now, someday. Meanwhile, he’s been given sweeping control of Hall High. I expect the pressure to grow for a high school with football team, cheerleaders and all the rest out west, sooner rather than later. The delay tonight was just a preparatory action. Board Chair Diane Zook’s nephew, Gary Newton, a quarter-of-a-million-dollar lobbyist for the Walton interests, has been working tirelessly to achieve this. It will come, even if it means robbing money that otherwise might patch the leaky roof at Dunbar.
Faced with community engagement of the highest order, the state Board of Education told them all essentially to go to hell.
Poore, the nominal school superintendent, specifically objected at the end to a school renaming and principal hiring=. That principal, a six-figure job, will oversee a school with two grades and fewer than 200 students. Efficient, right? It was about as big an FU to local control as you could possibly invent.