The Little Rock School District is seeking input on options for new school board election boundaries. The LRSD will host a community forum to discuss the three proposals at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 13, at the district’s headquarters, 810 W. Markham. Through Feb. 19, the district is seeking votes from the public on the three proposals via this website.
The LRSD hasn’t had a school board since 2015 when the Arkansas State Board of Education voted to take control of the district and remove the elected school board because of low test scores at a handful of Little Rock schools. The State Board is nominally returning the district to local control later this year, following school board elections in November. The new board will not be able to fire the superintendent, recognize the teachers union or engage in litigation, and as long as the district remains under the state’s Level 5 intensive support designation, the State Board has the power to intervene in the LRSD however and whenever it wants.
The creation of new zones is only necessary because state Rep. Jim Sorvillo, a West Little Rock Republican, successfully sponsored legislation that allows a school district with more than 20,000 students to have a nine-member school board, rather than five or seven, which has long been state law. Among LRSD advocates, the law is widely seen as a way to make it more difficult for the LRSD board to again have a majority of black members, which was the case at the time of the takeover.
That the State Board is forcing the LRSD to take up the nine-member board option is especially frustrating because, after these new zones are created, they’ll have to be redrawn after the results are in from the 2020 Census.
Shelby Johnson, state geographic information systems officer, developed the three options and explained the rationale at the January Little Rock School District Community Advisory Board meeting. You can watch video of that presentation here at the 24-minute mark, or see Johnson’s slideshow here.
Law and court rulings require the zones to take into account equal population, minority representation, contiguity, compactness, political boundaries, geographic boundaries and communities of interest, Johnson told the CAB.
One of the proposals is organized around elementary attendance zones and another around existing election precincts. The third ignores communities of interest,” but has the lowest population variance between zones.
Johnson suggested that the election precinct model best met all those criteria and would be easiest for election officials to implement. But he also spoke favorably of the elementary concept. In each of those, five zones have a majority black population. As Ali Noland, LRSD advocate and Arkansas Times contributor, noted at the last CAB meeting, basing election zones around elementary zones isn’t the best foundation for a school board as it would likely promote rivalries.
The low variance option has four election zones with majority black populations, but two of those also include parts of Hillcrest and the Heights, where voter turnout is likely to be high, which might work against a black candidate. There’s no good argument for this option.
It’s unfortunate that, in each of these options, two of the most visible LRSD advocates, Noland and Anika Whitfield, are in the same zone. Neither has said definitively that she will run for school board, but both would be strong candidates.
Of course, public input and a recommendation from the CAB, likely to come at its meeting Feb. 20, mean almost nothing. The ultimate decision is Education Secretary Johnny Key’s alone.