The future of the LRSD debated
After almost five years of controlling the Little Rock School District, the state will soon have to come up with a new plan. The law requires that the state develop exit criteria for districts under its control. It took the state more than four years to do so for the LRSD. In February, it announced the criteria, which significantly includes test score improvement; many believe that the state intentionally designed the criteria so that the LRSD would fail to meet it. If a district doesn’t meet exit criteria after five years, the law requires the state either annex, consolidate or reconstitute the district. The former two options aren’t considered viable for the LRSD. The state Department of Education believes that reconstitution isn’t defined in state law. Throughout late August and early September, members of the State Board of Education hosted five public meetings throughout Little Rock, ostensibly to get input on how the board might determine a meaning for reconstitution. But because board members and education department officials did not clearly explain the legal situation and tried to force the public to adhere to narrow comment prompts or “breakout” discussions, most of the meetings turned into raucous protests. The public outcry — varied in particular grievances, but unified in demanding the return of a democratically elected school board — seemed to make an impact. At a working session Sept. 11, Education Commissioner Johnny Key appeared to be steering the state board toward returning the full district to local control in 2020. A final decision had not been made by press time.
UALR chancellor out; enrollment down
UA Little Rock Chancellor Andrew Rogerson was forced to step down Sept. 1, and was replaced in the interim by Christina Drale, who was interim executive vice chancellor and provost. UALR has suffered a decline in enrollment; the most recent drop was 8.2 percent, pushing the university’s budget deficit to $10.6 million. Rogerson was unable to turn around the decline in enrollment and had to cut staff; he believed the eStem charter high school’s presence on the campus, including in the student cafeteria, was contributing to the decline.
RESOLUTION WOULD OUST TAX CHEAT
The state House will convene Oct. 11 to vote on whether to expel Rep. Mickey Gates, the Hot Springs Republican who pleaded no contest to a felony count of failing to file state income taxes. A resolution filed by House Speaker Matthew Shepherd (R-El Dorado) calls for Gates’ expulsion; Gates has refused to resign. Expulsion requires take a two-thirds vote of the 100-member House.
Sen. Jim Hendren (R-Gravette) has drafted a bill to be considered in the 2020 General Assembly that would snuff out vaping — smoking e-cigarettes that use vapor — in all places where smoking is prohibited. The bill would also tax e-cigarettes and provide the proceeds to schools for safety and mental health counseling. It would also restrict advertising of the product near schools and make other regulations.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is investigating vaping illnesses in the wake of seven deaths attributed to the use of e-cigarettes. The state Department of Health is also warning Arkansans about the risk of lung illnesses due to vaping.
Hendren failed in the last General Assembly to tax vaping. The legislature instead stripped the Tobacco Control Board of regulatory powers over e-cigarettes and prohibited cities and counties from regulating vaping. The concessions to the vaping industry came in a bill to impose taxes on cigarette sellers, rolling papers and the sale of medical marijuana by cultivators and dispensaries, money that would go to cancer research at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.
Hendren said in a news release that he is “encouraged by the favorable response” to the bill by his colleagues in the legislature.
California has begun a $20 million campaign warning of the dangers of vaping.
Officer’s firing upheld
The Civil Service Commission upheld the termination of Little Rock Police Officer Charles Starks, who was fired after the February fatal shooting of Bradley Blackshire, who Starks stopped on suspicion of driving a stolen vehicle. The Sept. 4 ruling was met with shouts of “Yes!” by family and friends of Blackshire, 31, whose killing prompted several protests outside City Hall. The commission hearing on Starks’ appeal — which started in July but recessed after Starks’ lawyer, Robert Newcomb, injured himself in a fall down the stairs at City Hall — began with testimony from assistant police chiefs Hayward Finks and Alice Fulk that Mayor Frank Scott put pressure on the LRPD to speed its investigation into the case. When the hearing reconvened in September, Assistant Chief Wayne Bewley, who was acting police chief at the time of the shooting, said the mayor was “adamant” about releasing a video of the incident quickly, but “didn’t have a real understanding of what we do and how this process works” during an investigation into police misconduct. He said he did not think Scott sought to expedite the investigation to deny Starks due process, but to get the video released quickly.
Parking lot pushback
Billionaire Warren Stephens, whose indifference to historic preservation was illustrated in 2009 when he leveled buildings on the west side of the 400 block of Main Street for parking, got the city’s OK this summer to demolish four buildings on the west side of Louisiana Street between Second and Third streets, also to make way for more parking for employees at Stephens Inc. Now, in a rare expression of pushback against Stephens, the Little Rock Planning Commission has come out against the parking lot plan; its commissioner Craig Berry was quoted in an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette article that it would create dead space. Planning staff had recommended the parking lot as “appropriate use” because of the other surface level parking lots in the area, a logic that suggests the whole of downtown could be paved over because parking lots exist downtown.
The commission was to decide at its October meeting whether to OK the demolition of the historic Gay Building at Third and Broadway for a car wash.