Attention is growing for the vital elections for Little Rock School Board, including a welcome column today by the Democrat-Gazette’s John Brummett.
Brummett gave an effective seal of approval to five candidates, none endorsed by the editorial page of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. All, it so happens, ARE endorsed by the Little Rock Education Association. That is the teachers’ union fired as a representative of district employees by the Hutchinson administration to the eternal delight of anti-union D-G publisher Walter Hussman.
They are fine candidates all, as Brummett explains in some detail..Most are familiar here for their frequent appearance as school advocates in almost six years of mistreatment of the Little Rock District by the Hutchinson administration and Secretary Johnny Key, the nominal Little Rock school board. They are:
Zone 5: Ali Noland
Zone 6: Vicki Hatter
Zone 7: Ryan Davis
Zone 8: Greg Adams
Zone 9:” Dr. “Bao” Vang-Dings.
A five-fold amen. I have an Ali Noland sign in my yard because that’s my zone and you can’t name a person who’s devoted more to quality education for all in Little Rock. I’d put out signs for all the rest if Hillcrest traffic mattered, with a special emphasis on my daughter’s Central High classmate Ryan Davis, exactly the committed young parent you want on a school board.
Brummett didn’t get into Zone 3, the only other contested seat. There the LREA recommends Evelyn Hemphill Callaway, a retired teacher. She sounds good, but I’d also give a look in that Zone at Michael Sanders, father of three kids in the district and married to a district teacher. They both recognize the democratic process, for one thing. Collective bargaining is legal in the United States — except by Hutchinson-administration edict in the Little Rock School District. Callaway and Sanders support that right. Tommy Branch, who won the D-G endorsement, told the newspaper he would “follow the established governing laws in place regarding the Arkansas Education Association,” parent of the Little Rock Education Association. What does that mean? Who knows? No law governs the AEA, but a Hutchinson fiat prohibits collective bargaining in the Little Rock School District. I think you can read between the lines through the D-G’s ringing endorsement. They assume he’s fine with depriving Little Rock teachers of a right enjoyed by most working people.
Dr. Vang-Dings is an outstanding candidate — a research scientist and educator with two children in the Little Rock District. She wasn’t given a mention by the D-G editorialist because there the Republican/Walton junta is backing a candidate to their liking, Jeff Wood. He opposed the return of local control to the district and has generally adopted the Hutchinson administration line on the schools. He’s in the race for one overriding reason, to build a full-service high school in Northwest Little Rock, complete with a football field, cheerleaders and all the rest. There already IS a new high school in Northwest Little Rock, the West School of Innovation, capacity 450. that currently enrolls 120. But no football. This is the school named and with a principal chosen by Diane Zook in one of her last acts as a State Board of Education member dedicated to punishing the Little Rock School District.
Wood is being supported by the Walton-funded charter school lobbyist Gary Newton, who’s been raising money to put into School Board races. No reports have been filed yet that reveal the extent of how much money he will spend or the sources of money raised by candidates themselves. That could be interesting.
But what has been revealed is that Wood isn’t interested in mixing it up with opponents. See this Facebook post, which quotes the friendly Democrat-Gazette endorsement of Wood and his supposed willingness to talk with neighbors over the back fence.
The post is from the Friends of LRSD about their inability to get Wood to participate in a candidate forum this week.
Another important topic: You’ll often find among the best candidates for the board some reticence about the Johnny Key-engineered millage tax increase snuck on the Nov. 3 ballot without public notice. They see the need, but they don’t like how it came to be on the ballot.
It is NOT a tax increase, its advocates will tell you. Semantics. It is true it won’t change the existing 12.4-mill rate applied to debt service, but it will EXTEND THE TAX FOR 18 YEARS. That sounds like a billion-dollar future tax increase to me.
How did they arrive at asking voters for approval of a $329 million bond issue? Well, they figured how big they could make the bond issue without increasing the millage rate or cutting into excess revenue the “debt” millage provides for operations. They figured they could do it by refinancing about $116 million of current debt at a lower interest rate and still preserve existing operational excess money with an added $200 million worth of bonds on top of those not refinanced.
And how will the $200 million be spent? Superintendent Mike Poore said some $50 to $60 million will go to a new elementary-junior high in Southwest Little Rock. The rest? Well, various general stuff, as shown in promotional material The future School Board will decide, he insists. That item about high schools raises one big question mark, for sure. Is a football field a “modification”?
This isn’t the best way to run a school district. The school board should decide on the size of a bond issue and it should say before the election how that money will be spent. As specifically as possible.
There’s ample time to do this next year at a special election. Interest rates aren’t going up any time soon. But the bond daddies are hungry. Underwriters and lawyers will coin about $5 million from this bond issue, the more bonds the higher their take.
You didn’t know debt service provides money for operations? It does in a property-rich district. Millage is assessed at one point in time, but property values continue to grow and the millage produces more than enough to pay off bonds. The ballot proposal is written to allow the rest to apply to operations.
Currently, the 12.4 debt mills produce $46.5 million a year (times 18 years, given the expected growth in property values, you’re easily talking a billion-dollar future tax assessment). The debt service on $240 million in existing debt is $21.5 million. That means $25 million, well more than half of the debt service, is going annually to operations. Yes, it’s needed. And it would be fully preserved, actually increased by about $100,000. But it’s a tricky way to finance school operations, though admittedly critical as the Hutchinson administration drives ever more students (and state dollars) out of the Little Rock district with charter schools, vouchers and other hostile actions.
I don’t doubt Mike Poore’s sincerity about district needs. But I’d like some more thoughts from a real school board on spending $150 million before approving a $329 million bond issue. It’s risky, I know. Some anti-taxer might call for a campaign to simply refinance all debt at today’s lower interest rates and cut the millage rate in half. That would put a punishing hole in the operational budget, however.
Still … Secret schemes by Johnny Key don’t sit well with me. Nor votes for people endorsed by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.