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Arkansas Education Commissioner Won't Renew Little Rock Teacher's Contract In Current Form

Johnny Key
Colton Faull

Arkansas Education Commissioner Johnny Key says he won't renew the latest agreement between the Department of Education and the teachers union known as the Little Rock Education Association. During a press conference Tuesday, Key cited low test scores as the reason and said the public school district needs more control in deciding when to let teachers go. It now takes about two years to fire a teacher for lack of performance.

"The district and principals would have greater flexibility in making staffing decisions; staffing changes as they move forward getting ready for the '19 school year," said Key.

Key would waive the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act at 22 schools with a D or F grade. However, a statement from the teacher's union notes the state took control of the district four years ago and that Key is essentially serving as the district’s school board.  Some teachers say they are not responsible for the low grades within those 22 schools.

In the statement, the union claims teachers would be asked to agree to give up their due process.

Even murderers receive due process in court, yet the Commissioner expects our members to not only give it up, but to support giving it up. When the District was taken over by the state, we had six schools classified as being in Academic Distress. Currently, we have twenty-two schools that received a grade of a D or F. Those grades are a result of three completely different state-mandated tests over a period of four years. Yet, the commissioner wants to hold the educators accountable for the grades. In those schools, eleven of the principals that were in place at the time of takeover have continued to work at the same sites and one has been promoted. Those principals have not recommended any teachers for termination due to failure to meet their job expectations. School culture and expectations come from the school leadership. Those principals have not been recommended for termination nor have they had their rights to Teacher Fair Dismissal waived.

Key suggested part of the problem is teachers not showing up to work. Over half of the classroom teachers in the 2017- 2018 school year were absent 10 days or more, he said.

"If we expect our students to show up if we are worried about chronic absenteeism with our students, which is defined at that 10 day-plus, and over half of our classroom teachers are absent meeting that same definition, then that is a problem," Key said. "That's not a problem with teachers. That may be a problem with scheduling, that may be a problem with PD, that may be a problem with culture."

Key said he has talked with Superintendent Michael Poore about the possibility that part of the problem might be some of the leadership in the low scoring schools.

"Maybe it's not what's going on in the classrooms, maybe it's what's going on with the culture," Key suggested. "There are protections that are in place now for principals that this would open it up to provide that tool to address some of those issues."

Regarding whether low scoring schools would have difficulty attracting new teachers because of the dismissal policy, Key said he is not concerned.

"There are teachers right now that are not members of LREA," he said. "There would still be protection because there's still a grievance situation that's in the PNA (Professionally Negotiated Agreement). I didn't change any of that... if it's due process someone is concerned about in making it less attractive, there is due process. It's still in place. It just doesn't end with the components of teacher fair dismissal that's currently in statue."

When asked what responsibility he and the state bear for the drop in scores, Key responded by questioning what the drop in scores mean.

"You're talking about a long-term track record in these schools," he said. "There have been improvements, but they have been inconsistent. You had Baseline, you had Fair, you had McClellan that got off the old academic distress system, now they've slipped back and are struggling."

Two candidates for mayor, state Rep. Warwick Sabin and former Superintendent of the Little Rock School District Baker Kurrus, weighed in on Key's decision in separate statements.

Sabin said this "demonstrates the problem with having a one-man unelected school board making unilateral decisions for the Little Rock School District...It also doesn’t make sense to single out teachers for corrective action when we should be doing everything we can to attract and retain high-quality educators. We need a collaborative approach that includes teachers, administrators, parents, students, and — most importantly — an elected school board that directly represents the interests of every citizen in our city."

In a statement on Facebook, Kurrus said, "this type of negotiation does not build trust and cooperation at a time when those two fundamental elements are essential to the success of LRSD. It also undermines the authority of the school district’s primary negotiator, the superintendent."

Key said the changes made need to be about the kids. 

"You cannot defend 11,000 kids being at a D and F school without some major initiative to try and turn that around," he said. "There is work going on every day by great teachers in this district. There are processes and systems in place that are not providing what kids need."

Correction: Key is quoted as saying chronic absenteeism in public schools is 10 days, but according to the Arkansas Department of Education, it is 18 days. The headline and entire story has been revised for accuracy and clarity.