Brian Chilson
Ali Noland

My time on the Little Rock school board will come to an end in a few short months. For a moment, it looked like there would be a race for the seat I’m about to vacate, between Anna Strong — my candidate of choice — and a woman named Donnally Davis.

Then, after only two days, Mrs. Davis dropped out. She said in a statement she was “stunned by the amount of personal attacks and vitriol” she received after announcing her candidacy, including “from people who do not know me — or the policies I support.”


I do not know Mrs. Davis, nor do I have firsthand knowledge of the harassment she faced. But I take her at her word that these things occurred and were bad enough to drive her out of the race. Though she didn’t specify the nature of the attacks, they may be related to the fact she’s married to J.R. Davis, a former spokesperson for Asa Hutchinson and now a lobbyist for a firm known for its aggressive public relations and lobbying efforts on behalf of conservative candidates and causes.

I’ll be honest. My immediate reaction to Mrs. Davis’ statement about experiencing attacks and vitriol was something like, “Well, if you thought that was bad, then school board probably isn’t the job for you!” Whatever spiteful messages she received, I thought, I’ve experienced a lot worse in my three years on the board.


Take covid, for example. During the pandemic, when we relaxed masking requirements in Little Rock schools, I was told — by a dear friend, mind you — that if her child died, she would hold me personally responsible. As you can imagine, this was not said calmly but was hurled at me with the type of visceral anger that only comes from a parent afraid for the safety of their child. 

Another parent sent me an audio recording of his young daughter crying because she was terrified to go to school if her classmates weren’t going to be masked. The anger in that father’s voice was chilling — and I accidentally listened to that voicemail on speaker with my kids in earshot.


I was told by others that our insistence on masking earlier in the pandemic, and the precipitous decline in enrollment caused by our covid policies, would make this board go down in history for killing our public schools. I was blamed by several parents for their children’s speech and reading delays, depression and severe anxiety when schools were closed and/or when masking was enforced.

When it came to covid precautions, both sides routinely questioned my judgment, intelligence, ethics and commitment to our students. Both sides! And in all those instances, it was people I know, respect and care about who were angry at me because they were genuinely, intensely worried for their children.

Brian Chilson
A meeting of the Little Rock school board.

Serving on the LRSD board requires a thick skin, to put it mildly. I cannot tell you the number of times people I respect have hinted, or have flat-out told me, that I have disappointed them. Disappointing a friend or acquaintance over a relatively minor budgetary vote or a library policy may not seem like a big deal, but I’m not sure most folks actually grasp what it is like to go through your daily life knowing the other moms at school pickup, the pediatrician treating your child, or the friends in your Sunday school class are angry at or disappointed in you. It gets to you.

My theory is that humans just aren’t designed to go through life actually knowing the negative stuff other people might be thinking or saying about them. But when you’re an elected official (or a candidate, for that matter), and it’s all on social media, you see it.


So, yes, my initial reaction to Mrs. Davis’s statement about vitriol and harassment was simply to view it as a part of the job she signed up for. 

But you know what? That is a terrible model for civic engagement and public service! It’s a sign of the toxic political climate in the LRSD. And that climate is harming our school district.

It’s true that you can’t govern effectively if you are afraid of anger and backlash. Trying to keep everyone happy is a bad way to make decisions. But the political culture we have built in LRSD goes way beyond that. It’s akin to hazing, where the people who have been through pain or trauma often feel like the next folks should have to go through it, too, in order to earn respect or acceptance. Our district has been through so much, and our employees and parents are understandably skeptical of anyone new who comes in claiming to be one of the good guys.

That’s exacerbated by the larger fact that politicians and elected officials in America today are not thought of as real people. They’re partisan symbols, like a red MAGA hat or a Black Lives Matter T-shirt, not actual human beings with insecurities, anxieties, time constraints and family obligations. Political outrage has become a form of entertainment, and all that outrage has to be directed at someone.

I’m thrilled that Anna Strong will be our next school board member. But this brief episode with Mrs. Davis has made me do some soul searching of my own. We need to address how damaging and counterproductive the political climate in LRSD has become. When we’re running off candidates within the first 48 hours, before anyone has talked about substantive issues or debated policy, that’s a problem.

This culture of tearing each other down is keeping lots of good, smart, caring people from being willing to serve our district. They see all the posts and comments sharply criticizing anyone who puts their neck out and, like most sane people, they think, “Why would I ever choose to be on the receiving end of that?”

And here I have to acknowledge that, frankly, I played a big part in creating this problem. I got involved in LRSD politics because I am passionate about wanting the best for our students and teachers, and sometimes the most effective way to advocate can be a very sharp tongue. There are times when anger, passion and intensity are called for, and I won’t apologize for being an aggressive advocate on issues like teaching Black history, protecting LGBTQ kids, returning local control of LRSD, standing up for our teachers and trying to make our schools safer from gun violence.

Ali Noland speaking to students at a rally earlier this year.

But I also have to admit there are times when I could have done things differently. Before joining the board, I often appeared at Community Advisory Board (CAB) meetings, where I offered plenty of pointed, harsh criticism. Once, in 2019, I ran into CAB member (now LRSD board president) Michael Mason at lunch. He tersely reminded me that the people I was belittling on the CAB were real people with real lives who volunteered their time to serve the district. I have now served with Mr. Mason for three years on the school board and respect him immensely. If I could go back and do things differently, I would.

During my first few months as a board member, I thought that I had to push past niceties and focus on the outcomes I was trying to achieve, even if it meant hurting people’s feelings. It’s not that I enjoyed being mean; it’s that I thought I was failing my constituents if I didn’t push as hard as I possibly could. I still haven’t figured out the right balance, but at least now I understand that the incredible people serving our district at every level are the ones on our team. They’re not the enemy.

I have also been harshly critical of partisan policies that will harm our students. When I show up at the Capitol to testify against bad education bills, I am usually not very concerned with being nice to the people pushing those policies. I’m not always sure where the line is between substantive criticism of a proposed bill, law or policy and stinging personal attacks against the human beings who support those changes. But I know I tend to dance right on that line and, admittedly, I have crossed it at times.

So perhaps I am not the best messenger. I almost didn’t publish this piece because I know that it is hypocritical of me to ask others to turn down the temperature and lower the volume when often I’m the loudest person turning it up. But I am in a unique position to raise these issues right now because my time on the board is almost done. The fact that I’m not running again gives me the opportunity to say things that my colleagues can’t, and I’m writing this piece in the hopes of initiating a larger conversation in the LRSD community. 

So, before you focus on my hypocrisy, please remember that it is entirely possible for you to agree with what I’m saying even if you roll your eyes at the fact that I am the one who is saying it.

I have learned to accept that not every political dispute or debate needs to be a knife fight. There is a lot of stuff we should be able to respectfully disagree on, especially when it comes to our local schools. True, there are many issues today in national or state politics where it feels almost insurmountably hard to find common ground between liberals and conservatives. One would hope, though, that it would be easier to find ways to work together within our own community, especially when we all want the very best for our students.

Instead, the political atmosphere in the district sometimes feels just as toxic as the nastiest types of partisan national politics, if not more so. Let me give a few more examples.

I have been told very clearly that I am not doing enough to protect our LGBTQ students in the face of legislative attacks. For many advocates, there is a clear line in the sand: Anything short of outright defiance of these new laws makes you complicit in harming trans kids. At the same time, because I speak up in support of our gay, non-binary and trans students and staff, I now have dedicated trolls on X (formerly Twitter) who have labeled me a “groomer” and make a point of commenting on every single post I make. 

Do I care what those trolls think of me? I don’t. It is nevertheless hard to explain to clients and distant relatives why so many folks on Twitter are constantly telling me to “stay at least 100 feet away from children” like I’m a kind of child molester.

I have had to take hard votes where there wasn’t a clear right and wrong answer. I have had to take other votes in which I knew the right answer would make a lot of my friends and neighbors mad. That’s normal in any elected position. But I have also had votes that forced me to question who I am and whether I am really willing to live my values. 

I have been called a racist several times when my decisions hurt Black students. Even though I took those votes because they were the best available option given the realities we were facing as a district, I knew that some of that criticism was warranted. If this or that policy change had impacted my own kids’ school, would I have found a better solution, fought harder or been more compassionate? That’s the stuff that will keep you from falling asleep at night.

I have been told, many times, that the facts and explanations I am providing to support a vote or a policy are not true. Often, no amount of evidence will convince someone of something they don’t want to believe, so the easier option is to assume that the messenger is lying. Similarly, when board members are asked to fix a problem that we cannot immediately fix, there is often an assumption that we aren’t listening, don’t understand, or just don’t care enough to try to fix it. 

When I have pointed to laws and policies that restrict board members’ ability to act, I have been accused of “gatekeeping.” And when I have taken a vote that angered someone, my best attempts at an explanation have come across as “gaslighting.” 

When I post photos of my kids on social media, I’ve gotten comments like, “She’s cute but if she goes to an LRSD school, can she even read?” and “Nice vacation pics; too bad you don’t pay your teachers enough to afford a vacation.”

I had a friend tell me never to speak to her again over a vote I took on the school board. We haven’t spoken since.

I’ve had an unhappy parent unexpectedly show up at my house on a Saturday morning to complain about a principal.

I once cried in the salon chair while getting my hair done because I made the mistake of clicking on an angry email. Lesson learned — I now read my emails and texts in private.

I left a friend’s funeral and cried in my car because someone at the funeral inexplicably thought that was the appropriate venue to grill me about a vote I had taken more than a year before.

Now imagine getting that kind of intense negative feedback on a weekly basis while simultaneously pouring so much time, energy, and emotion into this (unpaid) job that the workload begins to take a serious toll on your career, marriage, kids, health and friendships.

Talking about all of this is challenging because, in most cases, the complaints and criticism I received were valid, rooted in serious concerns about important issues. That’s what makes it hard. I have never lost sleep over partisan internet trolls spewing hateful nonsense on social media, but I have lost a whole lot of sleep over concerns that I am disappointing my community.

The bottom line is that serving on a school board is one of the hardest jobs imaginable because you’re making important decisions about people’s kids and about people’s careers. To make matters worse, the public can’t see all the things you have to juggle when making those decisions — the budget, the law, staffing shortages, time and schedule limitations, personality conflicts, politics and so on. So, on one level, I understand why people get so mad. It’s absolutely natural to have strong feelings about your child’s education and safety. 

And in a very concrete way, part of the “service” we provide as board members is as an outlet for people’s worries, frustration and anger. Some of those things we can change, and some of them we can’t, and anyone who has ever worked in customer service will tell you that part of the job is just to let people vent.

But y’all, something has got to give. I am not writing this in order to “tone police” Little Rock residents or silence their advocacy. But I am asking us to grapple with the fact that the intensity of LRSD politics isn’t sustainable for anyone involved. It’s hard on the advocates and on the people serving in district leadership. The bottom line is that the political culture we have built just isn’t serving our district very well right now, and as one of the architects of that political culture, I am trying to take responsibility and help right the ship.

In the three years since we regained local control of LRSD, how many uncontested school-board races have we had because only one person was willing to run? How many people filed at the last minute because no one else was stepping up?

I am not writing about the political climate in LRSD just to complain that it has been personally unpleasant. I’m saying it is negatively impacting the local democratic control we fought so hard to regain. When Anna Strong takes over my current seat in November, seven out of nine school board members will have earned their seats by running unopposed. I love and respect these board members, but when so few people are willing to serve, it denies voters any real choice about who will represent them.

When it comes to school governance, how many Little Rock residents have completely tuned out? And what kind of impression is this highly charged political climate making on potential employees or families looking for a welcoming school for their child? After fighting so hard to get our district back, this is disheartening.

So here is what I am personally committing to and what I am asking of you: Unless there is clear evidence to the contrary, let’s try to ground our criticism in an assumption that most people, including most board members, are trying to do what is best for our students within all the constraints and limitations that public school districts have to manage. Dissent is patriotic, yes, but personal attacks, ridicule and mockery are not the best tools for expressing that dissent, at least not if your goal is to change policy and not just engage in criticism for sport.

I am excited to be handing over my seat to Anna, who I know and trust. But at the same time, I think it’s a shame Mrs. Davis dropped out, because a contested race is better for democracy.

That was a hard pill for me to swallow when I was running, but it’s just true. Democratic governance is healthier when voters have choices, and a consistent pattern of last-minute filings and uncontested races shows our democratic process is suffering.

I am asking you — begging you, really — to think of this transition as an opportunity for us to reset the political temperature in Little Rock and reshape the way we approach advocacy. By all means, keep pushing for better policies and better outcomes. Make your arguments, organize people to join your cause, and show up to meetings. These are your schools and your kids, after all, and I would never ask you to be any less engaged or invested.

But not every policy vote should be a litmus test for determining whether an individual board member is a decent human being. The next time you’re about to send an email that says something like, “I thought you were a good person, but I was wrong,” (a message I have actually received), please pause and reflect. Does a decision to move a Pre-K class to a different building or a vote to give the superintendent a raise actually warrant that level of personal judgment?

If my plea feels like an empty platitude because you have heard it used so many times before to silence and diminish valid complaints, I get it. That’s not my goal here, but I honestly don’t know how to spark this much-needed conversation otherwise. I’m willing to take the risk because this issue is important. At a time when public education is being undermined, defunded and attacked, we can’t afford for the people on Team Public Schools to keep pushing each other out of the arena. 

We all love LRSD and are deeply invested in the success of our students. We care so much, in fact, that it can be hard to moderate our advocacy and temper our passion. That becomes even harder to do when everything feels so high stakes. And frankly it often is high stakes. The pandemic, literacy, gun violence, student mental health, legislative attacks on teachers and public education — it’s a lot.

But I can guarantee you that we will do a better job of managing and navigating all of these challenges if we all — the public, the board, the administration and district employees — start from a mindset that we are on the same team and are trying to accomplish the same things.

That’s my soapbox. It’s probably going to make some of you mad, but at least I’m used to that.