VICKI HATTER: The Zone 6 board member was elected president of the new Little Rock School District Board.

The Little Rock School District Board held a marathon first meeting with newly elected members Thursday. It was the first meeting of an elected school LRSD board in nearly 6 years. The state took over the district because of low test scores at a handful of schools in January 2015.

Zone 6 member and longtime activist Vicki Hatter was elected president of the board on a 7-2 vote. Zone 9’s Jeff Wood, who chaired the LRSD Community Advisory Board, first nominated Zone 1’s Michael Mason, who also served on the CAB, but his nomination failed to get a second. Mason and Wood later voted against Hatter with Wood telling Hatter that he was opposing her because he thought the board needed a more experienced president. Without opposition, the board elected Zone 4’s Leigh Ann Wilson to vice-president, Zone 3’s Ali Noland to secretary, Mason to disbursement officer and Zone 2’s Sandrekkia Morning to legislative liaison. The election of Hatter, Wilson and Noland to the top positions means the new board will be led by three mothers of LRSD students who have all been prominent in the fight for full local control.

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The board voted also 7-3 to change the length of members’ terms from 3 to 5 years. Hatter, Noland and Wood opposed the change. To stagger elections, board members drew lots. West Little Rock members Greg Adams (Zone 8) and Wood drew the short sticks and will have 2-year terms and be up for re-election in 2022. Hatter and Noland will have 3-year terms and be up for re-election in 2023. Wilson and Zone 3’s Evelyn Calloway will have 4-year terms and be up for re-election in 2024. Zone 7’s Norma Johnson, Mason and Morning will have 5-year terms and be up for re-election in 2025.

The district shared that it plans in January to move to all-virtual Fridays, where students won’t be assigned new work. Instead, teachers will provide support to students individually or in groups. The virtual day will also allow teachers more time for planning and collaboration, Deputy Superintendent Jeremy Owoh said. Seventy percent of 4,000 parents who responded to a survey approved of the plan, Owoh said.

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Noland said she’d heard from numerous constituents who were concerned about the spread of COVID-19 in the district and broader community and suggested the board hold a special work session to learn what, if any, further steps it can take. Many teachers and LRSD community members have pointed to the England School District’s plan to pivot to all virtual for two weeks after the holiday break as a policy worth considering. Poore suggested that the LRSD taking any similar proactive measures could put its accreditation at risk, but pledged to get more clarity from the state. After much discussion, the board voted to hold a special working meeting at a yet-to-be-determined date in January.

Owoh also detailed the LRSD’s progress toward meeting the latest state-dictated exit criteria to escape state oversight. Test scores are no longer included. Much of the latest criteria is qualitative and wonky: adopting Science of Reading curriculum and supporting dyslexic students, expanding professional learning communities and formalizing employee evaluation procedures. Owoh said state officials have said we’re doing well on all that. But the criteria also requires an approved master facility plan and a three-year balanced budget, and Owoh reports the state is concerned about the district meeting the budget part.

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(Editorial interlude: The state took the district over for academic performance not because of financial problems. Over the nearly six years the state has controlled the district, it has dramatically expanded the number of charter school seats in Central Arkansas, peeling off LRSD students. The district failed twice, in 2017 and 2020, to get voters to extend its millage, at least partially in protest of continued state control.)

This year, the LRSD has lost 750 K-5 students and 800 Pre-K students, Poore said. Per-pupil foundation funding is around $7,000. So that loss in elementary enrollment (funding for Pre-K works differently) could represent a decline of $5.25 million for the district next year if the legislature doesn’t make a pandemic-year tweak in how education funding is calculated. Were Little Rock the only district in this situation, the likelihood of such action would be slim, but other large districts, including the Springdale School District, are also significantly down in enrollment.

That decline in enrollment has ripple effects. There’s only so many adjustments a district with thousands of employees and dozens of buildings and programs can make on the fly. Kelsey Bailey, chief financial officer, noted a few of the inefficiencies, some of which have existed since before the pandemic but have been further exacerbated by it: The per-pupil cost to run the LRSD’s alternative learning environments is $96,994. At Hall High School, which was reconstituted by the State Board of Education last year, only 360 were enrolled as of October, which amounts to a $21,556 per-pupil cost. Little Rock West School of Innovation, which was renamed by the state board, which also pushed out the successful principal who was overseeing it, only has 126 enrolled, which costs $15,842 per-pupil.

Poore told the board that he planned to officially recommend early next year that the board ask voters for a millage extension.

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