In November 2020, Little Rock will elect a local school board for the first time in more than six years. While it is important to continue pushing back against the state’s paternalistic plan to indefinitely restrict the authority of our soon-to-be-elected board, we also need to recognize the opportunity we now have to demonstrate that LRSD will be a success under local control. A big part of what will make or break the future of LRSD will be electing smart, dedicated, hard-working people to the school board, but that is a discussion for another day (after the state sees fit to bless us with finalized school-board election zones). Today, I want to start a discussion about a different challenge we are going to face: How do we keep the community engaged and involved in LRSD long after the current political fight over local control fades away?
Every time I speak to a group about what is happening in LRSD, I am asked some version of, “How are we going to make sure that local control works this time?” I understand the concern. While I strongly believe that a locally elected board will be more effective in managing our district, because it will be directly accountable to the people of Little Rock, the model only works if people pay attention and stay involved in what is happening in our schools.
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How can we encourage continued substantive community participation in the governance of our school district going forward? Here are some ideas:
Provide childcare at school-board meetings or at least make the meetings kid-friendly. It should not come as a surprise to anyone that some of the people most interested in attending and participating in school-board meetings happen to parents of young children. It may, however, surprise you to learn that lack of childcare is an obstacle to civic participation for many people. The national average rate for a babysitter is $16.75 per hour. The average rate for Little Rock, according to Care.com, is $14 per hour. Recent Community Advisory Board meetings have lasted at least three to four hours and are often longer. Parents who wish to make public comments often have to wait until the end of the meeting to do so, meaning that they cannot mitigate their expenses by leaving early. When you also factor in the need to feed the babysitter and the child(ren) while the parent attends the meeting, the cost for the evening can quickly exceed $80 or more every month. That means that a parent who works full time making minimum wage in Arkansas would need to work approximately 10 hours to afford to attend a school board meeting. For many LRSD parents and guardians, this is simply not the best use of their time or money.
There is an easy and relatively low-cost solution. Either provide childcare at these meetings or simply make the meetings more kid-friendly and allow attendees to feel comfortable bringing their children. This does not have to be extravagant. Providing a room where a kids’ movie is played and some coloring sheets and crayons are available, and where older kids could work on homework or play video games under the supervision of one or two licensed adults, would be relatively simple. Bonus points if we could provide pizza or snacks.
While accommodating parents would obviously cost the district some additional money, it would be minimal compared to arguably unnecessary expenses such as what the district recently paid to hire an outside consultant to facilitate elections for the personnel policy committee (and then redo that work when the State Board changed the makeup of the PPC at the last minute). If providing childcare seems like too much to accomplish, making the meetings more kid-friendly would be free. Simply publicize on social media and the district website that children are welcome and then have coloring sheets, puzzles and kids books available at the meeting.
Create opportunities for people to participate in school-district governance even if they cannot attend the meeting. We currently stream CAB meetings on social media, and they can be viewed on television, but other than emailing individual members of the board before the meeting, there is no way for people who are not attending to provide input or ask questions. That is something we could easily change for free. For example, while the meetings are streamed on social media, the people watching often type comments in real-time and sometimes include substantive questions on the issues before the board.
Currently, those questions go unanswered, and those comments are not (to my knowledge) transmitted to the board members. It would not be difficult for the board to designate one LRSD staff person already in attendance at the meeting to monitor the social-media comments and, when pertinent, read such comments and questions to the board during the designated public-comment period for each action item on the agenda. Obviously, rules and guidelines would need to be developed, but allowing people to engage in real-time substantive interactions with their school board via social media is a free and easy way to increase community engagement. Similarly, the district could be more aggressive about publicizing both the meeting agenda and the board members’ email addresses before each meeting to encourage additional input on the issues to be discussed.
Consider varying the time and location of these meetings or adding additional listening sessions around the city between formal meetings. Not everyone can attend meetings that start at 5:30 p.m. on a weeknight. Some LRSD parents work evening shifts or are already committed to attending other events such as children’s extracurricular activities or events at their church. While it would be additional work for the board members and the superintendent, I think it would be valuable to make sure that there are several opportunities each month for community members to meet with the board (or at the very least, their individual board member) and discuss the issues the board is facing at that time. This could mean early-morning meetings at a coffee house or daytime meetings at LRSD schools. The point is simply to provide opportunities for a much wider swath of the LRSD community to stay informed about what is happening and give feedback to the board.
Bring back teacher and student representatives on the board. Even if these representatives cannot vote, simply putting them in a position to fully participate in board discussions and speak freely during meetings would allow the board to hear important perspectives on each issue.
Create an action plan for the board to engage with community groups and organizations. From PTA groups to local churches and civic organizations to political advocacy groups, the LRSD is fortunate to have the support of so many. Developing an open line of communication between these groups will allow the board to recognize and deal with problems on the front end before they become huge issues. It will allow the board to see what is working and identify areas that need more support.
Release detailed agenda packets before each meeting. People are busy, and it should be the district’s job to provide them with enough information to allow them to decide whether they need to attend each monthly school board meeting. That means that, when possible, allow the meeting agenda to reflect the substance of what is to be discussed. So, rather than, for instance, listing “Water bottle policy,” an agenda should indicate that the board will vote on a proposed change that would encourage all students to bring water bottles to school, would require teachers to allow students to have access to water bottles during class and would prioritize adding water-bottle filling stations in all new construction or renovation projects. Whenever the board is going to be presented with a recommendation on which it must vote, that recommendation should be made public before the meeting if at all possible.
Maximize opportunities for public comment. While the CAB has recently gotten better about allowing public comments on action items before the vote on each item, which is an improvement on its previous policy of pushing all public comments to the end of the meeting, there is still room for improvement. Specifically, the board should not be a stickler for whether something is an action item when deciding whether to allow a community member to speak on that issue. When parents and community members take the time to attend a meeting and they wish to speak to the board on any item on the agenda (action item or not), it costs the board nothing to simply hear them out. Since the alternative is pushing all those comments to the end of the meeting rather than hearing them when the specific agenda item is discussed, allowing speakers to weigh in during the discussion of the relevant item would not make the meetings any longer.
Encourage potential school-board candidates to run and encourage community engagement in the election process. It would be relatively easy and incredibly helpful for the district to disseminate information to all LRSD families regarding upcoming school-board elections. Advise potential candidates of the qualifications needed for serving on the board and important information such as the filing deadline, filing fee, petition requirements and election date. It would be especially helpful for the district to help organize candidate debates or meet-and-greet events at each school.
Create an annual performance-review process for both the board and the superintendent. Upon taking office, our newly elected school board should immediately do two important things: (1) set defined and quantifiable goals for itself and for the superintendent, and (2) adopt a clear and consistent annual review process by which it will evaluate its own performance and that of the superintendent. This process must include significant community feedback as well as a review of how successful the board and the district have been in meeting each of the goals set for that year. Such a process will likely be unpopular with board members, who will not likely want to advertise their shortcomings and mistakes to potential voters, it will be very useful in helping the board recognize areas in which it needs improvement.
The LRSD community has recently been very successful in engaging people in the fight for local control. We have been able to start city-wide conversations around important topics like equity, accountability and allocation of resources. Our friends and neighbors have shown up to support our schools in a big way — by volunteering, attending meetings, participating in the one-day teachers’ strike, writing emails and making calls to the governor and the State Board, and attending the candlelight vigil at Little Rock Central High School.
But now we have to figure out how to get people to keep showing up as things become more mundane and tedious in the coming months and years. Four-hour-long school-board meetings where people hash out the details of the budget or curriculum are not nearly as exciting as protesting at the Capitol or joining hands in front of Central, but they are just as important, maybe even more so. The good news is that LRSD has defied all expectations so far — we have come together when everyone expected us to be divided. We have changed the narrative around what the state has been doing to our district and forced the state’s hand on several issues. We have brought in exciting new community partners and have demonstrated excitement and enthusiasm for our school district that the rest of the state should envy. So I have high hopes that we will also be able to meet the next challenge of keeping our community informed and engaged in school-district governance even after the TV news cameras are long gone and the public protests transform into substantive collaborative meetings.