On Sept. 16, if past voter turnout is any indication, several hundred ballots will decide the future direction of the Little Rock School District. Two seats on the unpaid, seven-member Little Rock School Board are up for election, and both pit incumbents against challengers fiercely critical of district Superintendent Dexter Suggs. In the background of the election looms the very real possibility that the state may seize control of the school district in the near future if the board, and Suggs, cannot turn its academic situation around.
Though the desegregation suit that roiled the LRSD for decades is over, the district is facing new troubles. There are now six schools designated as being in “academic distress” by the Arkansas Department of Education, which means fewer than half of those schools’ students are performing on or above grade level. Three of the city’s five public high schools (Hall, McClellan and J.A. Fair) are designated as such. Under ADE rules, a district is subject to state takeover if even one of its schools is in academic distress, although the state Board of Education has discretion about when to exercise that power.
Financial problems loom as the annual LRSD budget will soon shrink by some $37 million as state desegregation payments come to a close thanks to a final settlement earlier this year — just as a new facilities improvement plan approved by the current board calls for half a billion dollars in new construction and building improvements.
Lastly, Superintendent Suggs, after only one year on the job, is under fire from the teachers’ union and others who say he’s misled the public about major policy decisions and failed to follow due process; if he quits or is dismissed, he’ll be the fourth such superintendent to depart in 10 years.
The storm clouds on the horizon are clear, but the solutions are not. Does the district need a stark change of direction? Or, is it the frequency of changes that’s birthed the current mess? This is largely the question before voters next week in Zone 1 (roughly, the city east of Woodrow Street and a chunk of the southwest corner of town) and Zone 5 (a swath of West Little Rock that lies south of Rodney Parham Road).
Norma Jean Johnson has served as the Zone 1 representative since 2011. She is an employee of the state Highway and Transportation Department and mother of a Central High graduate. At a recent school board candidates’ forum she seemed sincerely pained by the perennial censure the LRSD inspires.
“I love my district. I would never, ever speak down of my district. … I think we need to be a little bit more positive,” Johnson said. She also noted progress: “The achievement gap between Caucasian and African-American students has decreased in 13 of the 15 tested categories over the past five years.”
Johnson is being challenged by Joy Springer, a paralegal who has worked for over 20 years with John Walker, the veteran civil rights attorney who virtually embodies criticism of the LRSD for its failure to educate African-American children on par with white children. Springer says she shouldn’t be judged by that association alone. “I will not let my personal relationship with John Walker affect any decision I’ll make about any employee of the district. I’m my own person,” she told the Arkansas Times. Still, when Springer could not be in attendance for most of the duration of the candidates’ forum, she sent Walker as her personal representative to answer questions in her stead. Springer’s core message: Bring accountability to the LRSD administration (meaning, get tough on Suggs) and rely on data to make decisions in the best interest of students.
The Zone 5 race matches incumbent Jody Carreiro against challenger Jim Ross, a history professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and former LRSD teacher who has three children attending schools in the district. Ross was an early supporter of Suggs’ candidacy but has since become a harsh critic of both the superintendent and the board that oversees him.
“The Little Rock School District is in crisis,” Ross declared at the candidates’ forum. The district’s reading scores are unacceptable and reflect a failure on the part of the current board, he said.
Asked if he thought there was a crisis in the LRSD, Carreiro defended the district’s recent record. “From a moral, here’s-our-job standpoint, any child that gets through our school system and can’t read and do enough math to get by, that’s in a sense a crisis,” he said. “But in terms of the district, we’ve made significant progress. It’s absolutely serious, but I don’t know that I would use the word ‘crisis.’ Eight years ago, there were 10 or 12 elementary schools that were classified as having problems [by ADE]. Today only one is a distressed school. Reading has gone up as a district almost every year in all grades … to point out ‘no progress’ is an exaggeration.”
Carreiro, an actuary with two daughters who have graduated from the LRSD, has served on the board since 2008. “When you have a seven-person board, you do not need a crusader — you need a collaborator,” he said at the forum, jabbing at Ross.
The financial, academic and governance challenges facing the LRSD will require tough decisions from the school board in the months and years ahead. Here’s a sample of where the candidates stand on the issues:
On the budget
“The reality is that we do have to cut staff, benefits and programs,” Johnson said. “We have to go through with a fine-toothed comb and think, ‘Do we really need this?’ There’s going to be a lot of upset people, but it just has to be done.”
Springer said she’d want the board to make cuts based on the recommendations of a committee that would include teachers and parents, but cited legal fees as one place to find savings. Some will see an irony there, as Springer is herself seeking some $500,000 in fees for her work on the Pulaski County desegregation suit. However, Springer clarified, she is not seeking any payments from the LRSD itself, but rather from the state. She noted that the district’s payments to other attorneys outweighed anything paid to Walker’s firm or herself. Springer also said she has several other ideas about budget cuts, but is wary of going into much detail. “I don’t have to divulge those, because somebody else may try to steal my ideas and say they came up with it first,” she said.
The budget crunch will require “adult-sized conversations” about personnel cuts, Carreiro said, including administrative positions. But, he emphasized, “what we need to do is be more efficient in school size, and in program size, so that every child can get what they need.” The new facilities plan, he said, “will help to right-size some of our schools.”
Ross said he’d like to investigate waste and immediately freeze all new spending on technology and all new hires. “The first thing we have to do is to have a series of meetings in which we discuss every line of that 900-page budget,” he said, noting that there are 200 administrative positions that run into the six figures. “We are going to have to make some drastic cuts at the top of this administration.”
On the schools and Reading Recovery
Springer said she is concerned that the district is moving students from one school to another to avoid the 50 percent threshold that signals academic distress to the state. “You’re committed to making sure that all kids learn,” she said, “you don’t shuffle them around and put them someplace else in order to solve the problem.” She also lambasted the district for withdrawing funding for the Reading Recovery program, which has become the biggest flash point for critics of Suggs. “Why would you change something that’s working?” she asked.
The data shows that Reading Recovery, an intensive literacy intervention for students in grades 1-3, has been highly effective in remediating kids who are behind (though some question the data). Because it entails one-on-one instruction, it’s also very costly per student. Suggs replaced dedicated funding for Reading Recovery with a literacy program of his own devising, citing costs. For some, including the teachers’ union, ditching an intervention that is capable of bringing disadvantaged kids up to grade level — that elusive and essential goal of public education — was a cardinal sin.
Johnson said schools could still choose to use Reading Recovery if they funded it out of a separate pot of money. “It has been left up to the discretion of the principal to use their auxiliary funds if they want to keep the Reading Recovery program in their school. The principals have just recently received their funding, so I am not sure what schools have chosen to keep the program. I would say to critics to take a look at our literacy scores.” At the candidates’ forum, she and Carreiro were criticized by teachers demanding to know why the board allowed Suggs to cut the district’s budget for the program. “We get the information and we make the best decision possible with that information,” Johnson replied. “We are doing the best we can. We are not the experts; we do rely on the experts.”
Ross, an ardent supporter of the program, said that is exactly the problem. “They’ve come up against the limits of their experience. I believe we need one or two people [on the board] who have been involved in education for years,” he said.
Carreiro noted later that “the number of students in 2013 directly assisted [by the program] was only a couple of hundred. There were a lot of other students indirectly assisted. But, what Dr. Suggs and other administrators saw was that it was not being scaled up to help enough students. Also, some schools (like Terry Elementary) were making strong improvements without the help of Reading Recovery.”
On the superintendent
Springer said she’s capable of working with Suggs, but she’s also highly critical of his performance. “He’s never been a superintendent before. When you’re new and you don’t know what’s going on, you don’t come in and change things your first year,” she said. “I would rate him unsatisfactory with respect to student achievement.”
Johnson is more forgiving. “Was there ever a board or a superintendent who did things that made everybody happy?” she asked. “The role of the board is to maintain an open and working relationship with the superintendent, [and] to provide an evaluation tool that will reflect whether goals are being met.” Notably, although both incumbents defended Suggs’ record at the candidates’ forum, neither volunteered a ringing endorsement of the superintendent’s performance.
Ross said Suggs was “the best of the four or five candidates we had.” Superintendents come and go in the LRSD, he said, and the district must embrace a model of governance in which the board takes an assertive role. “My view of a superintendent is that he’s a hired hand to get the work done. The board is responsible for personnel, policy and programs … but in the past 25 years, they’ve abdicated that responsibility.”
Carreiro said that a school board’s role should be more about setting policy and goals rather than getting into the details of administration. “I think I have a pretty good understanding of how things work by this time, but I am not a curriculum director and don’t know all of the ins and outs of how to make sure that the appropriate educational opportunity is given to each child,” he said.
On the nuclear option
All four candidates agree that a state takeover, which would entail dissolving the school board entirely, must be avoided.
Both Springer and Johnson pointed out that it’s not clear the state wants to assume the burden of responsibility for the LRSD and its 25,000 students, or has the capacity to do so. “I don’t think there will be a point at which that happens,” Springer said.
“If the state takes over, they’re going to have to deal with the same issues,” Johnson said.
But a takeover is more than a hollow threat. In 2011, the Pulaski County Special School District, which encompasses Jacksonville, Maumelle, Sherwood and portions of West Little Rock, was taken over by the state. Pulaski County, which is the state’s second largest district after the LRSD, remains under state supervision today. If the LRSD troubles aren’t addressed in the coming years, a takeover might be inevitable, both Zone 5 candidates acknowledged.
“If we continue in the same direction, with the same spending, the same lack of research-based programs, and with some of the same personnel in place, we will be taken over by the state — sooner rather than later,” Ross said.
Carreiro agreed, in outline at least. “I think that if we don’t function better, if we don’t work together to make the improvements that need to be made, that’ll be their cue.”
Support for education reporting provided by Arkanas Public Policy Panel.