DIANE ZOOK: Wants to micromanage the LRSD. Brian Chilson

To what degree should the State Board of Education shape the future of the Little Rock School District? That was the major question up for debate at a State Board special work session Wednesday afternoon. Board chairwoman Diane Zook led the meeting and dominated the discussion. If it’s up to her, the State Board will remain intimately involved in the LRSD indefinitely, directing the district on everything from hiring and firing principals to how quickly Pinnacle View High School expands. But board member Chad Pekron and Education Secretary Johnny Key repeatedly pushed back against what Pekron framed as “micromanaging” the district, with both suggesting that the state needed to move largely into a support role.

The board also discussed giving the LRSD Community Advisory Board the same authority as an elected LRSD board. Elections for a nine-member school board are slated for Nov. 4, 2020, with board members to take office soon after. If the CAB was granted authority, it would likely happen sometime in January. There seemed to be support for that plan among board members, though several worried that perhaps CAB members wouldn’t want the additional responsibility. CAB members are frequently absent at monthly meetings.

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No votes were taken Wednesday, but the State Board agreed to scrap the widely derided draft memorandum of understanding between the city of Little Rock, the LRSD and the state Education Department. But much of the meat of the MOU is likely to come as a motion at next week’s regular State Board meeting. Pekron again said he thought an elected LRSD board needed “guidelines” while the district remains under Level 5 intensive support. He said again that the board should be restricted from recognizing a collective bargaining agent (i.e. the Little Rock Education Association teachers union), from firing the superintendent and from engaging in litigation.

Brian Chilson
CHAD PEKRON

 

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When Pekron discussed these ideas at last month’s board meeting, he included firing principals in his list. He said today that he misspoke.

“I don’t know that we need to be micromanaging the principals,” he said.

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Zook interrupted and told him that the board had the authority to weigh in on such employment decisions. “When the statute and the administrative rules of procedures gives us a specific responsibility, I don’t consider it micromanaging when we do what the law says,” she said.

“I understand that,” Pekron replied. “consider it micromanaging. I understand we have the authority to do it, but we have lots of authority that I don’t think we necessarily need to exercise it.”

Explaining the litigation restriction — which Ali Noland, a parent advocate, lawyer and Times contributor, has suggested might be without precedent — Pekron said, “My thought behind that was, at least while we’re in level 5, they shouldn’t be focusing on who to sue, they should be focusing on how to get out of Level 5.

Pekron said earlier in the meeting that he wanted the board to establish its endgame. “Either we’re giving the district back, or we’re not,” he said. “I don’t want to have a weird hybrid, where we say we’ve given the district back, but we haven’t.”

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LRSD advocates are likely to see his “guidelines” as the hybrid he described. Also, under Level 5, the law allows the State Board to intervene in the district at any time in just about any reason.

Zook said she’d been “timid about 100 percent local control” because she’d seen districts that were under state control taken over again. “We don’t want to do that. It’s painful,” she said.

She said it was positive that the community “now has direction with community schools. For the community that’s wanting local control, this is something for them to do.”

Addressing Pekron, Zook said, “To me, the things that you outlined may have an impact on student learning, but they don’t directly affect student learning. I’m still concerned about those kids and us being sure that we have enough in there so a red flag goes up if teacher attendance goes down again or student attendance goes down again. Or if they wait for people to apply for a job instead of looking for people to hire.”

Brian Chilson

Key said the state’s accountability system was designed to repair systemic problems.

“The goal of Act 930 is to help fix those deficiencies in the systems. It’s not to fix everything that’s wrong in a district. We can’t do that.”

He said a new benchmark of success for the Education Department was when systems could be fixed without state takeover.

“In the last 18 months, I’ve probably seen an acceleration of progress in this district to get to that effective systems conversation with the department,” he said.

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The state is required to set exit criteria for school districts under state control. After more than four years of control, the Education Department set the exit criteria for the LRSD in February. The criteria included quantitative and qualitative measures, though standardized test scores, which experts say strongly correlate with household income, weighed heavily. The district, of course, didn’t meet the exit criteria, so now the State Board is considering new criteria.

Key suggested that the new exit criteria might acknowledge that “not all of our students are where they need to be, but we have processes in place…” for the district to improve. He noted positive administrative leadership changes implemented by Randy Rutherford, who oversees middle and high schools, and Darian Smith, who oversees elementary schools.

Zook, who as chair leads meetings, steered the discussion into territory far afield from typical State Board concerns: whether the board should review how the LRSD is spending its federal categorial dollars (most of it goes toward pre-K, Key said) to a long explanation of the high school zoning options the district is considering. Zook echoed CAB Chairman Jeff Wood, saying that she thought Pinnacle View High School should immediately serve 9-12 graders in 2020 and offer a full complement of extracurriculars, including football. (Poore told me during a break at the meeting that he would be recommending that Pinnacle View expand by one grade each year. It has 9th grade this year, so it would add 10th grade in 2020). At one point in her zone soliloquy, Zook even suggested that if Hall Principal Mark Roberts didn’t want to be a part of a new Hall STEAM Magnet High School he could become the principal of the new Pinnacle View High.

Zook found some support from Sarah Moore, who has made crucial motions related to the LRSD in recent months. Moore said she was concerned that a large number of LRSD students weren’t reading on grade level and thought state intervention was still needed. Ouida Newton seemed to be pushing for the state to take a more supportive role. Kathy McFetridge and Charisse Dean barely spoke. Bret Williamson didn’t speak except to object to a special board meeting this Thursday (there won’t be one). Susan Chambers and Fitz Hill were absent.

The board will meet next at 10 a.m. Dec. 12.