A second lawsuit was filed today attacking the state’s continuing takeover of the Little Rock School District.
Lawyers Ross Noland and Clarke Tucker filed the suit on behalf of five plaintiffs.
It challenges, as did an earlier suit filed by Matt Campbell, the “guardrails,” or restrictions the state Board of Education placed on powers of the Little Rock School Board to be elected in November, almost six years after a state takeover for low scores in a handful of the district’s four dozen schools.
The suit says there’s no authority in law for state control extending more than five years past the Jan. 28, 1995 takeover. And it says there’s no authority in law for criteria Education Secretary Johnny Key “unilaterally” set for the district’s exit from the academic distress label that the state Board continues to use to control every activity in the district, down to school names and personnel.
From a release about the suit:
“Five years means five years,” said Amber Booth McCoy, a Little Rock School District parent and volunteer. “The time for a locally elected school board which is representative of, and responsible to, our community is now.”
The suit quotes counsel for the Department of Education, who in September 2018 informed the State Board that the state law imposing the five-year limit for state control would require a school board election in either November 2019 or May 2020. The State Board currently plans for a November 2020 school board election, at which time it intends to impose restrictions on the new board’s ability to govern LRSD. Those “guardrails” include a litigation ban, prohibition on hiring or firing a superintendent, and a prohibition on recognizing the Little Rock Education Association.
“There is no support in state law for extending State Board control beyond five years,” says Clarke Tucker, one of the attorneys filing the case. “An elected school board, without the arbitrary ‘guardrails,’ should be in place now. The State Board waited too long to perform what the law requires and is now trying to extend its control beyond what the law allows.”
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit against Key and the Board of Education are Amber Booth McCoy, parent of two children in the district; Don Booth, a veteran educator and grandparent of a Little Rock student; Katherine and Gene Lu, graduates of Henderson Middle School and Central High and parents of three children in Little Rock schools, and Skye Adams, parent of two children in Little Rock schools.
I asked Noland about similarities with Campbell’s suit and what that mean as the cases move forward. He responded:
There are similarities in that both cases attack the guardrails, but our case includes additional causes of action and also seeks to invalidate the exit criteria, which the other case does not.
We will see if the Court decides to consolidate the cases. If they are consolidated, I am sure we can cooperate on common interests while also representing the interests of our separate clients and cases. I believe Clarke and I both regularly work with counsel that have similar interests to our clients, and will be glad to do so with Mr. Cambell here.
Tucker is a former state representative who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2018. Noland lost a race for a state House seat (not Tucker’s former seat) in 2018 to Rep. Tippi McCullough. His wife, Ali Noland, has been active in the movement to regain control of Little Rock schools and a contributor of articles to the Arkansas Times. She is an announced candidate for School Board in November.
The case has been assigned to Judge Mackie Pierce. Update: The case was transferred later in the day to Judge Mary McGowan, who drew Campbell’s case.
I’ve sent notes to Key and Diane Zook, chair of the state board, seeking comments. Key earlier said the state would fight the first suit.
UPDATE: Zook responded:
This is the first I knew of it.
I will not comment further while there are on going lawsuits.
I specifically asked her about the unilateral setting of exit criteria, with nothing approaching the normal administrative rules process. She declined comment.
Also, the state Education Department provided this response to my message to Key:
After looking through the lawsuit, this appears to be based on the same flawed arguments as the filing last week. We will continue to work with the Governor’s Office and the Attorney General’s Office to develop a plan of action in response to these filings. Our top priority right now is maintaining educational opportunities for all Arkansas students.
I’ve gotten no response to my specific question about the department’s departure from original legal guidance from its attorney that the board election should have been held in November last year or no later than May this year.