GORDON: Exploring legal action. Brian Chilson

Teresa Knapp Gordon, president of the Little Rock Education Association, says that her organization is contemplating legal action after Little Rock School District Superintendent Mike Poore sent a letter to some 400 school employees on Jan. 16 informing them that their positions would be declared “vacant” at the end of the year.

The letter went to staff at McClellan and Fair high schools, which will close at the end of the school year in advance of the opening of the new Southwest High School; at Rockefeller Elementary, which will be converted into a birth-to-pre-K facility next year with K-5 students being reassigned to Washington Elementary; and at Hall High School, which will be “reconstituted” at the end of the school year following a December State Board of Education vote.

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“In order to comply with the recent directive of the Arkansas State Board of Education regarding Hall High School and the continue [sic] implementation of the Little Rock District Blueprint … the Little Rock School District seeks to treat all certified staff at those impacted schools in the same way,” Poore’s letter reads.

The district anticipates employing fewer teachers and administrators in the 2020/2021 school year than it does now, the letter continues, and those employees who don’t find another position could be recommended for “non-renewal.”

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“However, there will be many open posted positions through the LRSD,” according to the letter.

Gordon contends that the district is violating school board policy approved by Education Secretary Johnny Key. The policy, section 3.4, spells out a reduction-in-force procedure if 5 percent or more of certified staff are not to be employed in an upcoming school year as compared to the number employed at the end of the first semester of the current school year. If a RIF is declared, the district has to immediately institute a hiring freeze, post all available positions, develop lists of current employees based on a rubric score that takes into account seniority and other factors and then “offer/place” staff in those positions based on their rubric score.

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The LRSD administration wants to avoid a RIF because it wants it would add chaos to what already promises to be a difficult year. A RIF would affect staffing throughout the district.

Poore told me that the district does not anticipate coming anywhere near the 5 percent threshold once all positions are filled at Southwest and Hall highs and elsewhere, so it’s not required to undertake the RIF procedure.

I have requested the number of teachers employed by the district at the end of the last semester. Earlier the week, Poore told me the elimination of around 100 positions would meet the 5 percent threshold.

Gordon said the district is creating vacancies that far exceed the 5 percent and can’t see into the future to know how many positions will be needed in the future. “We could lose another 1,000 kids,” she said. “Mr. Poore could die tomorrow and someone new could come in and decide they’re not hiring any of the [affected staff.]”

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“The way that it works in the LRSD has always been that we work for the district, and we’re hired by the district, and you’re assigned to a specific site,” Gordon said. “Just because you work at Hall doesn’t mean you’re a Hall employee. You’re a district employee.”

“Basically they want to be able to pick and choose who they keep,” Gordon said.

The State Board of Education voted to waive the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act for Little Rock teachers in December 2018, but it reinstated the law in October when it voted to direct state Education Secretary Johnny Key, who acts as the Little Rock School Board under state takeover, to end recognition of the LREA as LRSD teachers’ exclusive bargaining agent.

Gordon said that the district’s handling of these teachers violates the fair dismissal law. “They’re getting nonrenewals without cause,” she said. “They’re getting nonrenewals because they work in schools with the most need.”

State Board member Sarah Moore, who made the motion to reconstitute Hall High, said she wanted to emulate the success of Forest Heights STEM Academy. It was reconstituted ahead of the 2014/2015 school year. But those teachers were displaced, Gordon said, meaning that they were guaranteed a job elsewhere in the district, a policy required in the professional negotiated agreement between the district and teachers, which is no longer in place.

If the district isn’t going to declare a RIF, it should displace teachers, Gordon said.

“Mr. Poore says that they’re going to help these people interview and go through the process,” she said. “That doesn’t give people any peace of mind, whenever they’ve got a letter saying that they don’t have a job next year.”