LITTLE ROCK COMMUNITY ADVISORY BOARD (file photo) Brian Chilson

The LRSD Community Advisory Board voted Thursday to recommend the approval of new school board election zones based on election precincts. The recommendation goes now to Education Secretary Johnny Key, who acts as the LRSD school board while the district remains in state takeover, and then onto the Election Commission.

The new zones are required because the State Board of Education took advantage of a new state law that allows school districts with more than 20,000 students the option of having seven or nine members. The change is widely considered as a means to make it less likely the board will have a majority of black members as it did when the state took over the district in 2015. The new nine-person school board will be elected Nov. 3.

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Board members Jeff Wood, Melanie Fox and Michael Mason voted in favor of the election precinct concept. LaShannon Spencer did not vote. Maria Chavarria-Garcia wasn’t present. The two other positions are vacant.

State GIS
ELECTION PRECINCT CONCEPT: Recommended for approval by the CAB.

Shelby Johnson, state geographic information systems officer, developed three options for the election zones. 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, he previously told the Community Advisory Board meeting.

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One of the other options was organized around elementary attendance zones. Another ignored “communities of interest” but had by far the lowest population variance.

In a community survey the LRSD conducted on its website, the elementary zone plan received the most support, but based on some of the comments from those taking the survey, Fox said she worried that people thought they were supporting elementary attendance zone changes, not election zone changes based on elementary attendance zones.

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Jeff Wood, board chairman, voiced his support for the election precinct model.

“It is less open to attacks of gerrymandering,” he said. “If it would be attacked as gerrymandering, the same attack would apply to the county precincts that this map is based on. So we have multiple levels of government that have drawn lines like this, and so I think it provides stability in a legal challenge.”

Ali Noland, an LRSD parent, likely school board candidate and Arkansas Times contributor, echoed something she’s previously said during the public comment period (which perhaps due to her advocacy has been moved to the beginning of the meetings, which sometimes stretch four hours, instead of the end). She said she worried that the elementary attendance zone concept would complicate future board decisions about elementary school issues and hamper board members from thinking about the district as a whole.

Fox and Wood both said they agreed with her. Wood, also likely a school board candidate, added, “Members of a school board should likely be a level removed from just considering themselves to represent individual schools. Instead, I think they represent all of the citizens in the area of their zone, regardless of whether those individuals are engaged in public schools on any level or not. They are all taxpaying citizens, and so whether they have students in public schools, private schools or not in school at all — you still represent the interests of those people.”

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The board spent little time discussing the low-variance option aside from noting that it had virtually no support from the community.