Several thousand LRSD supporters gathered at Central High School on Oct. 9 to protest the state’s treatment of the school district.
AT CENTRAL HIGH: The LRSD community in October. Brian Chilson

One positive consequence of the state’s relentless meddling in the Little Rock School District over the last nearly six years? A new crop of youngish, smart, tireless LRSD advocates has emerged who are committed to the health of the district as a whole, not just certain schools. They advocate for policies that promote equity among students across the district, support teachers (often vilified by so-called education reformers) and methodically push back against state overreach into the district. Three of the brightest lights from that group are running for Little Rock School Board this year: Ryan Davis, Vicki Hatter and Ali Noland. Joining them are other strong candidates with much to recommend.

It’s a pivotal time for the LRSD. The district has significant capital needs. If the millage fails (and Max has made a convincing case for why it should), the new board will need to put forward a new proposal and advocate for it. Like schools everywhere, the LRSD will be dealing with effects of COVID-19 for years to come. Enrollment is predictably down; without some sort of policy change from the state, the district’s budget for next year could take a hit. Maintaining student numbers was already a challenge thanks to massive number of charter school seats the state has approved in Little Rock. The state has also worked hard to demonize and punish Little Rock teachers for collectively bargaining and working in a high poverty school district. The board will need to restore trust. Meanwhile, it will need to ensure that district leadership is doing everything it should to address pandemic learning gaps among students. And of course, the new board will have to do all that while the State Board of Education continues keep the LRSD under its thumb.

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That’s a daunting list (and it’s just a start), but I’m going against character and feeling optimistic that Little Rock will elect the following highly qualified, hard working and thoughtful slate of candidates, who will fight to get the district out from under the yoke of state control and work aggressively to address inequities.

Zone 1: Michael Mason: He’s running unopposed, has a long history in Little Rock public schools and has been an occasional voice of reason on the Little Rock Community Advisory Board.

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Zone 2: Sandrekkia Morning: Also running unopposed, she got a lot of public notice, including a cover shot on the July edition of the Arkansas Times, for organizing protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. She’s young (26) and contracts with school districts, including the LRSD, to teach at-risk kids poetry and creative writing. I was introduced to her by her friend Stacey McAdoo, forever Arkansas Teacher of the Year and LRSD hero.

Zone 3: I don’t know the Zone 3 candidates. The Little Rock Education Association has endorsed Evelyn Hemphill Callaway, but Michael Sanders, parent of three children in the district and husband to an LRSD teacher, seems worth a look.

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Zone 4: Leigh Ann Wilson: A licensed clinical social worker at UAMS, she’s also running unopposed. She’s the parent of a third grader at Forest Heights STEM Academy and got active into school politics when she realized she had no elected leadership to turn to as her daughter began school. She was a frequent thoughtful speaker before the State Board of Education and an inveterate letter writer to state officials (I got copied on them). Her answers to a KUAR survey were on-point.

Zone 5: Ali Noland: I’ll admit bias: Ali is a friend, a frequent Arkansas Times contributor and a fellow PTA member at Pulaski Heights Elementary, where our kids go to school. But her resume speaks for itself. She emerged as a leader among those pushing back against state meddling in the district, regularly giving powerful impromptu speeches. But she’s been doing work in the district for years. She successfully led a grassroots push in 2018 to ensure that Arkansas elementary school children got sufficient time for recess (ask teachers and parents: It was a game changer.) She’s a weekly mentor and tutor at Wakefield Elementary. She’s on the boards of the Pulaski County Imagination Library and Volunteers in Public Schools (ViPS). She’s an attorney who is fluent in complex policy areas. She’s repeatedly advocated for the entire district. And she seemingly never sleeps. Her opponent, Heights real estate broker Stuart Mackey is by all accounts a nice guy, but I endorse my friend, local Twitter celebrity Austin Bailey’s takedown of his candidacy and the Democrat-Gazette’s lame endorsement of him.

Zone 6: Vicki Hatter: Among all the candidates, she’s been consistently active as an education advocate the longest. She shows up everywhere. She’s smart and hard working and eager to work with whomever is willing to put in the time. She’s also been a parent in the district for almost 20 years, so she knows the district intimately, and she’ll continue to fight for equity. 

Zone 7: Ryan Davis: Another home run candidate, Davis has an ideal resume for a school board member: He’s the executive director of UA Little Rock Children International, a nonprofit with a mission for every child to graduate from its program healthy, educated, employable and empowered to break the cycle of poverty. It serves almost 10 percent of LRSD students and partners with dozens of nonprofits and other do-gooder groups to provide services and after school programs. It’s exactly the kind of work that fits into the community school model the district is embracing. Davis has extensive board experience, serving on the boards of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, Decarcerate Arkansas and the Arkansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty. He’s an associate pastor at Bullock Temple C.M.E. Church and a gifted orator. He’s also a LRSD graduate and parent of three children who attend Gibbs Elementary.

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Zone 8: Greg Adams: I didn’t cover the school board during Adams tenure, from 2010-2015, but he was by all accounts fair and diligent. He’s a longtime volunteer in the district and parent to two LRSD graduates. He’s a social worker who works in bereavement support with Arkansas Children’s Hospital.

Zone 9: Kieng “Bao” Vang-Dings: A research professor at UA Little Rock’s Center for Integrative Nanotechnology Sciences, Vang-Dings has experience designing science curriculum at the K-12 and post-secondary levels. She’s the mother of two LRSD students, promises to employ a data-driven approach to issues before the board and would be an important resource as the district continues to embrace STEM education. Also, crucially, she’s not her opponent, Jeff Wood, the chairman of the Community Advisory Board, who’s repeatedly demonstrated that he’s only interested in the northwest part of the city, regardless of how building projects there might detrimentally affect the rest of the district. He testified in the legislature for a bill that would have allowed the state to retain control of the LRSD for a longer period, and he’s no friend to the Little Rock Education Association.