New head Hog

This being Arkansas, the biggest local news since the December issue of the Arkansas Times was the hiring of Sam Pittman as the new Razorback football coach. Pittman was an assistant head coach and offensive line coach under Brett Bielema, 2013-15, before being hired by Georgia. He’ll be paid $3 million a year plus bonuses for wins. His successor, Chad Morris, was fired after the Razorbacks’ 45-19 loss against Western Kentucky, putting his record at 4-18 in his (nearly) two seasons at Arkansas. Several Arkansas players under Pittman wrote letters of support, and Razorback fans rejoiced, thanks to his reputation at recruiting. Pittman, at his first press conference, was visibly moved about his new job, choking up and later confessing, “I’m a wreck.” Morris was hired as offensive coordinator at Auburn.

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City hires education chief

Jay Barth, a longtime professor of political science at Hendrix College in Conway and a former member of the State Board of Education, was named Little Rock’s first chief education officer by Mayor Frank Scott Jr. (see more on page 9). Barth’s job will involve developing a model for community schools and getting them off the ground. The city has allocated $500,000 so far toward the effort, a good start but not enough to implement the model. The State Board drafted a memorandum of agreement on how community schools might operate, but it was scrapped after widespread criticism. At the press conference announcing Barth’s hiring, Scott said he’d seen what Barth had done “for the least of these” and that Barth’s decision to take the job was a good deal for the city. Barth cited kindergarten preparation, health care services and innovative after-school programs, as well as providing a place for parents and guardians to gain skills, as the community school ideal.

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More State Board meddling in the LRSD

The State Board of Education voted unanimously to place three major restrictions on the Little Rock School District after the November 2020 election of an LRSD School Board. Under board member Chad Pekron’s successful motion, the new board won’t be allowed to change its superintendent, recognize an employee bargaining agent (i.e. the teachers union) or alter the selection of the district’s personnel policy committee, or engage in litigation. Those restrictions will remain as long as the LRSD remains under the Level 5 intensive support state designation. But the State Board won’t be limited to those restrictions; as long as the district remains under Level 5, state law allows the State Board to intervene in district policy at any time. The board has signaled that it will discuss what should make up exit criteria for the LRSD at its January meeting. The State Board previously voted to expand the number of LRSD school board seats from seven to nine (which many see as effort to make it less likely that the board would again have a black majority). Perhaps as a sign that the State Board will continue to micromanage the LRSD, it also voted to reconstitute Hall High School and rename Pinnacle View High School the West High School of Innovation and require the district to hire a principal for the school, which now has only ninth-grade students and will expand by one grade in subsequent years. At the meeting, Education Secretary Johnny Key, who acts as the school board for the LRSD under state takeover, approved recommendations from the LRSD to turn Hall High into a citywide STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) magnet school. He also decreed that the new Southwest High School should add a magnet component to its Southwest Little Rock attendance zone and that the district should delay its plans to develop a K-8 school in what’s now J.A. Fair High School. 

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Cranford sentenced

Rusty Cranford, the former lobbyist and health company executive who pleaded guilty to his role in the massive Preferred Family Healthcare public corruption case, was sentenced to seven years in prison in federal court in Springfield, Mo. At press time, he was being held in the Greene County Jail, where he has been for nearly two years, until the Federal Bureau of Prisons decides where to incarcerate him. His time in the jail will be credited to his sentence. Cranford has also been ordered to repay $3.7 million for illegal benefits he received over the years. The government will seize some property he owns in Florida and Arkansas, but it’s worth only a tiny fraction of the judgment.

Donald Trump impeached

The biggest national news was, of course, the impeachment of the president. The U.S. House of Representatives voted to impeach on grounds that Trump abused the powers of his presidency when he sought political favors from a foreign government to advance his own 2020 election campaign, and that he obstructed Congress by instructing federal employees not to comply with congressional subpoenas. The vote was on party lines; none of Arkansas’s four congressmen, all Republicans, voted for impeachment.

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