What can the Little Rock School District do to return to full local control? What will school look like amid the pandemic in August? Those were the main questions before the Little Rock Community Advisory Board on Thursday. The answers to both probably won’t satisfy the Little Rock school community.
The State Board of Education voted to take over the LRSD in 2015 because of low test scores at a handful of schools. By law, a district can only be under state control for five years. The State Board last year voted to reconstitute the district and set a November election for a new school board, which the State Board said will have limited authority until the district exits the Level 5 intensive support category.
The new draft exit criteria plan has five areas of focus, several of which are fairly wonky:
*Expanding professional learning communities within schools.
*Establishing formalized employee evaluation procedures.
*Adopting curriculum that incorporates the Science of Reading and provides support for dyslexia.
*Master facility plans
Little Rock School Superintendent Mike Poore complimented the state Department of Education in taking a different approach with this draft exit criteria plan. Rather than starting the discussion with the State Board of Education, he said he appreciated the state presenting the plan to the Community Advisory Board first. But of course the plan still has to be approved by the State Board, which has shown its willingness to move far beyond education department recommendations in the past, so this move may only have symbolic value.
Poore also said that of the criteria, “If you look at these things and you were to go place them in any other school district, these would be the … things that you would want to weigh on any school district to say, “Are you being effective in supporting young people?”
Mike Hernandez, deputy commissioner of the Arkansas Department of Education, said the state was looking to build off collaborative work its done with the district in certain schools.
“As the work is continuing, what we’re looking for is, are these things being implemented within the district?” Hernandez said. “Do we have buy-in from the various groups: district staff, the department, from the [policy personnel committee], the Community Advisory Board, and, as the school board is elected and in place, they have a good working knowledge of the elements we’ve established collaboratively with the district to move forward?”
Hernandez said building a three-year expected budget and developing a master building plan that addresses the district’s needs would be important.
The district has never been under state oversight because of fiscal distress. Might the state try to direct budget or building priorities in certain ways? That’s sure to be a concern among advocates. A major part of the district’s master facility plan involves demolishing the McClellan High School building and replacing it with a K-8 school. That will cost at least $50 million, which the LRSD can’t afford without asking voters for a millage increase. State meddling in when, and even whether, to ask voters to approve a millage increase would not go over well among the LRSD community.
Jeff Wood, chairman of the Community Advisory Board, said after Hernandez made his presentation, “It seems to me as though — I hate to use the word easy — but I think that this is going to happen very quickly. I look at some of these things and think they’re already occurring.”
The draft document includes dates that stretch into June 2021, six and a half years after takeover. Does that mean the state will retain authority over the district until then? “I don’t know that we’re looking specifically for a specific date,” Hernandez said. The dates on the document are just there to provide a framework for check-ins, he said.
As to whether the LRSD will return to normal operations in the fall, stay tuned. Poore mentioned the possibilities of blended, virtual and in-person education, but said that no decisions had been made and the district is looking to the Health Department and state leaders for guidance. He said July 1 might be a date when the district is better prepared to share a plan.
“I don’t think people want to hear, ‘Well, we’ve gotta wait and hear what the sate is going to say,” Wood said. “I think parents are hungry to hear something more.”
The district recently sent out a survey to parents on how they viewed the virtual education the district offered over the last two months of the school year. It also included an invitation to participate in upcoming small focus groups.
Wood, who is running for school board next year, also asked district official to consider how it could ensure that children don’t lose their spots in school if their parents decide to keep them home in the fall.
UPDATE: Teresa Gordon, president of the Little Rock Education Association, provided the following statement:
“The LREA is excited to finally see the exit criteria, and they are most definitely within reach for the district. Our only concern is the timeline of the document, which includes dates into 2021. Does this mean that we will be released now and monitored into 2021? Or that we won’t be released until 2021? The LREA continues to advocate for immediate release since we are well past the five year deadline, and that full local control be restored now. No guardrails, no restrictions, no oversight. It is time for the LRSD to be returned to its constituents so that we can focus on educating and caring for our students.”