LRSD SUPT. MIKE POORE (file photo) Brian Chilson

Six and a half years after the Arkansas State Board of Education voted to take over the Little Rock School District, the LRSD is fully free of state control.

The State Board on Thursday unanimously voted to approve a recommendation from the state Division of Elementary and Secondary Education to release the district from Level 5 intensive support and remove limitations on the LRSD School Board.

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Education Secretary Johnny Key, LRSD Superintendent Mike Poore and members of the State Board celebrated the milestone and praised the collaborative work between the state and the district.

The immediate practical consequences of the vote are limited.

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In 2019, the State Board voted to return the LRSD to an elected local board, but with restrictions. The local board, elected in November 2020 and installed a month later, hasn’t been able to fire the superintendent, bargain with the teachers’ union or sue the state.

Without the restriction, the LRSD board probably would have recognized the Little Rock Education Association, the last local teachers’ union in the state to collectively bargain with a district on behalf of educators. But now that the board has full autonomy it can’t return status to the LREA. Thanks to a new state law, sponsored by Sen. Bob Ballinger (R-Berryville), public employees can no longer collectively bargain, with the exception of fire fighters and police officers.

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Now that the local board has full control of the district, it’s unlikely to find cause to sue the state, and board members appear to largely be happy with Poore.

But the full return of local control could be key to the future of the district. Although it has received $99 million in federal aid in response to the pandemic, the LRSD will need more money to make needed facilities improvements and increase educator pay. Twice under state control, the LRSD asked voters for a millage extension. Both times voters said no, outcomes that were widely seen as the Little Rock school community registering its disapproval of continued state control. The LRSD School Board is likely to again ask voters to extend the millage in a special election later this year.

The State Board’s vote on Thursday removes the LRSD from Level 5 intensive support and moves it to Level 4 direct support. During public comment, LRSD Board President Vicki Hatter asked what Level 4 would mean for the district. State Board member Sarah Moore also asked if the board would vote to remove the LRSD from Level 4.

Key said the idea for districts moving from Level 5 to Level 4 is to ensure “a soft landing.”

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“It’s not a precursor to Level 5. It’s not a ‘just in case that we need to take over again,’ ” Key said. “It’s simply to maintain the collaborative work” between the state, district and elected board. The state will continue to monitor the district and the LRSD will make quarterly reports to the State Board next school year.

Stacy Smith, deputy education commissioner, presented the State Board with a detailed analysis of how the LRSD had met exit criteria to move out of Level 5. Unlike the exit criteria the state established for the district in 2019 (four years into state control!), which focused largely on student achievement, the latest criteria was largely about qualitative measures. It’s all fairly wonky: The state wanted the district to establish professional learning communities and embrace the high reliability school model, improve its teacher evaluation processes, adopt a new reading curriculum and do better identifying dyslexic students and come up with a three-year balanced budget.

The State Board voted to take over the district in 2015 ostensibly because of the low test scores at six of the then 48 schools, not because of fiscal concerns, so the last item inspired a lot of consternation from LRSD advocates. Without the federal windfall, the district might have faced more scrutiny from the State Board. On Thursday, Moore questioned the district’s financial health beyond the federal money.

Key said he wasn’t worried about the district’s financial stability. He said LRSD leaders had deftly navigated the loss of $40 million in annual state desegregation payments, which ceased at the end of the 2017-2018 school year.

Poore thanked state officials, including Key, who hired him, and praised his team. He said the district and state had worked especially well together over the last two years. He noted that community engagement in the district has never wavered.

Ahead of the official vote, Key told the State Board he rarely tries to influence it, but implored it to vote to release the LRSD from Level 5.

“The success of education in Arkansas really hinges on the success of education in the capital city,” he said.

That was a subtle, but perhaps telling, refashioning of something board member Fitz Hill earlier said a banker told him: That for the state of Arkansas to reach its full potential, the LRSD needed to. (Hill also offered his obligatory tortured sports metaphor: The LRSD had made first downs. He knew Poore was ready to score some touchdowns and would guard against fumbles and blindside sacks and continue to move the ball down the field.)

Even if one grants that the state and district worked together to improve the LRSD in recent years, it’s impossible to argue that the state didn’t damage the Little Rock School District over the last six-plus years.

The State Board put educators through hell, stripping them of due process rights and union representation and repeatedly blaming them for academic shortcomings endemic in high poverty schools everywhere. The board also grossly overstepped its role, reconstituting Hall High High School and naming it West High School of Innovation and threatened to meddle further.

Most damaging to the district, while labeling the LRSD as a failure, the state approved a dramatic expansion of charter school seats in Little Rock and elsewhere in Central Arkansas. Poore’s predecessor Baker Kurrus presented data in 2016 that showed that Little Rock charter schools enrolled fewer kids who lived in poverty, who have special needs or who speak English as a second language and said expanding charter schools further would only concentrate children with the highest needs in public schools. In response, Key fired him. The charter expansion has only continued since then.

Members of the Walton family and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette owner Walter Hussman have long had the Little Rock teachers’ union in their crosshairs. Under takeover, the state crippled the union until the state legislature could fully strip it of power.

As I’ve written before, all of this villainy engaged LRSD supporters to pay closer attention and get more involved than they have been in recent decades. That energy helped elect a strong school board. It also propelled the city into a more active role in public education than perhaps ever before with investment in the community school model in the LRSD. Those are hopeful things. But will they be enough to offset the damage done by the state and a charter expansion that’s likely to continue? There are challenging years to come.