Bryan Poe, director of the Pulaski County Election Commission, told me yesterday that the Little Rock School District had submitted ballot language to ask voters to extend 12.4 mills of property taxes for 18 years beyond the scheduled expiration in 2033.
Over the life of the extension, the tax millage will produce more than $1 billion in taxes, some to pay for construction bonds but it also will produce overages for operations under the arcane school finance laws.
How could the school district, which has been under state control for going on six years, put a tax increase on the ballot without a School Board to vote to put it there?
Poe told me he assumed the district was using Education Secretary Johnny Key’s authority as the nominal Little Rock School Board.
Indeed, according to an article in the Democrat-Gazette this morning, that’s the case. Key approved the request. In private.
It was not done in public. It was done barely 70 days before the election with only the barest of discussion (days ago before the powerless Community Advisory Board) on how the money will be used. Superintendent Mike Poore says it will provide for some $200 million worth of work on multiple campuses, but particularly a new K-8 school in Southwest Little Rock needed to replace Cloverdale and other schools.
Poore and, supposedly Key, assure voters that the School Board will decide how the money is spent.
Unfortunately, we don’t know who that board will be and whether their priorities will be the same as Mike Poore’s. We also know that the state Board of Education has put a choker collar on the School Board when it is elected. They can’t negotiate with teachers; they can’t choose their own superintendent; they can’t file lawsuits, and if they do anything Key and the state Board don’t like they can be overruled. And the state grinds exceedingly fine. Already, the state has overridden the name of a school, the choice of a principal for that school and the assignment of a teacher who happens to be the leader of the Little Rock Education Association. It has threatened to arrest Little Rock School District defenders for attempting to speak at state Board of Education meetings.
What’s worse, Key, the man who put this 18-year tax increase on the ballot (I know the rate won’t go up now, but it is still a vote for more than a billion in new taxes over time) won’t meet with citizens of the Little Rock School District. He won’t do interviews. (Oh, he did appear once in a “town hall” sponsored by a Walton-financed group intent on deconstructing the Little Rock school district.)
This is a taxation proposal without representation, like the one defeated in 2017, and for even more money. The 2017 extension was for 14 years, not 18 years. As then, the Johnny Key School Board was in hiding and won’t talk about it with the people he expects to vote for it. The business leaders who orchestrated the takeover of the Little Rock School District can be expected to again tout the tax measure — defeated by 90 percent of black voters in 2017.
Political circumstances haven’t changed much. The state has failed at running the Little Rock School District, which was taken over to oust a majority-black board of a majority-black district. The state signals every intention of continuing to control the district through a neutered school board and no means out of the state’s flawed and unfair grading of districts on standardized test scores.
The state, by law, should have given the district back to voters at the first of 2020 but cooked up a reworked legal opinion to prevent it. We could have had taxation with representation if the Hutchinson administration had only been willing to allow it.
The better way forward would be for an elected School Board to put this tax proposal on the ballot, with elected representatives’ assurances of how the money would be spent. But the Hutchinson administration won’t permit a special election early next year on a school tax increase. The dogma is that not enough voters take part when only people truly interested in school affairs vote. I suspect the Hutchinson administration also doesn’t trust Little Rock voters to elect the right kind of school board members.
So district voters — abused, ignored and mistreated for more than 5 years — will be asked the first Tuesday in November to trust Johnny Key this one time. If he doesn’t appear in person before Nov. 3 to talk candidly with voters, I know one voter who won’t be so inclined.
If you’re counting, 12.4 mills cost about $250 per year on a house worth $100,000.
And speaking of elections: I’d also asked Poe about preparations for completing the ballot and getting it printed for mailing to the big number who’ve requested mail absentee ballots.
The Election Commission will meet Friday to approve the ballot and hopes to begin printing them Monday, Aug. 31, he said. They’ll be sent out as soon as they’re printed