This is the first in a series of profiles of the candidates for Little Rock mayor.
Baker Kurrus has already been a mayor of sorts, overseeing schools as agencies; administrators, principals and teachers as staff; and children as his constituency. As the appointed superintendent for the Little Rock School District from May 2015 to June 2016, he made a lot of friends among public school supporters unhappy with the state Board of Education’s takeover of the LRSD. The board, many influenced by the charter-school supporting Walton Family Foundation, disbanded the LRSD School Board in January 2015* for the slimmest of reasons, that six of its 44 schools were in “academic distress,” producing anger among patrons helpless to change things.
Kurrus, 64, who’d served on the school board for 12 years (1998-2010) and as an appointed adviser on district finances in 2015, was an active superintendent, trimming the budget by millions in the face of an upcoming loss of $37 million in state desegregation settlement payments. He visited every school. He started a weekly online newsletter where he openly wrote about both problems and great teaching he saw. He even sang Leon Russell’s “A Song for You” at Central High School’s graduation. He began to win over people who originally saw him as a business type unsuited to run the district.
He also promoted the acquisition of property in Northwest Little Rock for a middle school as a way, he said, to compete with the drain of more well-to-do kids to private and charter schools.
Kurrus was, in fact, too candid when it came to charter schools and their impact on the LRSD. When he presented data to the state Board of Education that showed charters were harming education in the LRSD, Department of Education Commissioner Johnny Key gave him the boot.
But it was his “chutzpah,” she said, that earned him the support of Little Rock City Director Capi Peck. While saying Little Rock was lucky to have a stellar lineup of mayoral candidates this year, she’s openly backing Kurrus. (Kurrus has four opponents in the race: Warwick Sabin, 42; Vincent Tolliver, 51; Frank Scott, 34; and Glen Schwarz, 64.)
“Bottom line, I think he is the most qualified to bring the city together in light of what he did with the Little Rock School District,” Peck said. She said she didn’t know Kurrus before he led the district, but his work there put her “firmly on his team.” She described him as “compassionate and intelligent.”
“One thing that impresses me is his ability to take a look at a budget and get in there, and financially he understands so much because of his background,” Peck said. “He won’t be afraid to shake things up, make cuts.” As superintendent, she said, Kurrus asked for a key to every building in the district so he could get a feel for what was going on. “He’s that kind of CEO.”
Kurrus, a corporate lawyer and former executive and West Little Rock residential developer, nevertheless comes across as a guy who, if he weren’t running for mayor, would be happy trying to grow organic soybeans in the drained minnow ponds on his farm (though that venture almost got him killed earlier this year).
He’s a talker. He can swing from talking about city budgets and what he sees as money poorly spent in one breath to singing Solomon Burke’s “None of Us Are Free,” a song he and the Asbury Prison Band perform as a prison ministry, in another.
You might expect Kurrus to be a one-note candidate, given his name recognition as a superintendent David to the Goliath of wealthy charter-school backers. But that’s not the case. His pitch is restoring Little Rock’s blighted
Kurrus, a cyclist
But today, Kurrus said, if you go to the city seeking a building permit that might help a
Waving lists of city projects funded with sales taxes approved in 2011, Kurrus said the city is not spending its money in a way that addresses weed lots, vacant houses and abandonment of
“We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars where we don’t address the fundamental issue. Right now we’re going to pay to improve curbs and gutters at Pine and Cedar [streets]. Curbs and sidewalks. That’s nice. But what does that really do?” Why not, he wondered, spend that money in ways that people want: Making
Kurrus said he wasn’t blaming code enforcement officers for an off-putting response to development. If that’s their response, Kurrus said, it’s from a “lack of vision and leadership” at the top. “The purpose of every city employee should be to facilitate the attractiveness and livability of
“That 12th Street thing,” he said, referring to the police substation at 12th and Pine streets. “I don’t want to sound overly critical, but it looks like a fortress. They built commercial space there, but commercial follows rooftops. … What you should be thinking about is how do we get people to live in the area. You just have to shift your total mindset.”
Part of that shift, he said, is away from considering city improvements a “
“Baker gets it.” That’s what Paul Dodds, a developer who lives near Central High School who has often expressed frustration with city regulations that allow houses to fall down but penalize him for using plastic instead of metal on the porch of a house he’s rescued, said about Kurrus. He showed Kurrus around the
If the city would encourage reinvestment in a
Given the fact that Kurrus has been involved in real estate development — such as Woodlands Edge in West Little Rock —is his interest in helping developers? Would it be fair to characterize him the real estate candidate? No, Kurrus said, “it’s really unfair.
“It’s not about making money in real estate, it’s about changing people’s lives. It’s the human interest that compelled me. It’s not about bricks and mortar, it’s about the people, whether they feel happy, satisfied, safe, that informs every other decision they make. That drives outcomes in schools, it drives crime rates.”
It’s a stand that has convinced Dodds, who was not particularly happy with Kurrus’ acceptance of state Department of Transportation’s plan to widen Interstate 30 through downtown Little Rock from six to 10 lanes, to throw his support to Kurrus. “Baker’s passion is for the nerdy nuts and bolts of the mayor’s job itself — budget line items, morale among school bus drivers, the how and why of how city government is not working as it should.”
Whoever wins the mayoral race will be the head of a city with an unusual hybrid leadership: A “strong” mayor elected by voters and a city manager. Does it work? “I don’t think we know yet,” Kurrus said, given that the city’s had the same mayor, Mark Stodola, and the same city manager, Bruce Moore, since adopting the hybrid form of government. But in his reading of the ordinance that created today’s city government, “the mayor can play a more prominent role,” Kurrus said: The city manager is the chief administrative officer, but he is to perform other duties “at the direction of the mayor.”
“The mayor is the chief executive officer. I know what that means: I’ve been a CEO. They don’t point their finger at anybody else, deflect questions
One thing the mayor should be doing, Kurrus believes, is working to support the city’s major institutions, like the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and UA Little Rock, neither of which is getting the attention from the legislature that it needs. “The mayor ought to be pounding on the legislature, saying, ‘What in the world are
The boost that got him in the race, Kurrus said, was attending a fundraiser for AR Kids Read, a literacy initiative, where “they were talking about all these kids that couldn’t read.” Schools can’t teach kids if the kids don’t come from healthy
A speaker at the fundraiser made a speech about community and valuing children. “I
That and a near-drowning on his farm, when he was nearly sucked underwater by a drainpipe on his minnow pond. His son rescued him by slicing off his waders with a knife. “Dude,” Kurrus said he thought to himself, “you’re not invincible.”
Whether he will win the mayor’s race could depend, for one thing, on how strong the flow of public opinion is against interstate widening, which has been Sabin’s issue and
Kurrus will argue that fighting I-30 is like “howling at the moon,” given Mayor Stodola’s crucial vote in
*A previous version mistakenly said the state had taken over the LRSD in 1998.