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As LRSD Approaches Five Years Of State Control, Its Future Is Still Uncertain

Teresa Knapp Gordon (center), president of the Little Rock Education Association, telling reporters Monday that the union is calling for a one-day strike on Thursday.
Brian Chilson
Arkansas Times

The return of the Little Rock School District to local control has been a controversial topic since the state took over the district almost five years ago. State officials say the outcome of an Oct. 10 meeting of the State Board of Education signals a return to local control of the district, but others disagree. 

What we know, after the marathon eight-hour meeting and roughly 350 pages of transcribed minutes, is that it's complicated.

Arkansas Education Secretary Johnny Key has served as the district's school board since the state took over the district in 2015. He says a draft agreement between the state and the district will help begin the return to local control.

"We were needing to get something in writing so that we could start the process, knowing that this first draft is subject to change considerably," Key said. 

The conversation about public school adequacy became most notable in Arkansas in the wake of a 1992 lawsuit known as Lake View vs. Huckabee. The eventual ruling in the case by the state Supreme Court determined the state’s funding system for education violated the Arkansas Constitution, which requires education to be adequate and equitable.

That resulted in a flurry of laws passed by the state Legislature that cemented the state's responsibility in ensuring adequacy, shifting it away from local school districts and boards. The Arkansas Supreme Court has since affirmed another facet of the state constitution, that the state itself cannot be named in a lawsuit, as it was in Lake View.

The Lake View decision was invoked again in 2015, when the State Board of Education voted to dissolve the Little Rock School Board, and to put the city's school district under state control; with then-Education Commissioner Johnny Key acting as the board.

After Key fired former superintendent Baker Kurrus about a year after the takeover, Michael Poore moved from northwest Arkansas to take the job.

"The one thing about Little Rock that I've come to know in my four years is there's a lot of opinions. There's a lot of people that are ready to share their thoughts about how things should go, and when you deal with challenging topics, it's hard to get a mass consensus," Poore said.

Proponents argued the number of "academically distressed" schools in the district warranted a state takeover. Since 2015, the metrics for determining the letter grade schools received has changed, but the number of "F" rated schools has jumped from six to eight.

LRSD parent Ali Noland says, throughout the state takeover, she's always had faith in the district's teachers.

"Excellent doesn't even begin to describe [it], it's like every parent's wildest dreams is how I would describe our teachers that we've had so far," Noland said. 

Johnny Key
Credit Colton Faull / KUAR News
Arkansas Education Secretary Johnny Key speaks with reporters at an Oct. 2018 news conference.

Noland, an attorney who's been at the forefront of the movement to return local control, says at this point in the takeover, the state is obligated by law to make a change.

"A school district that is taken over for academic distress can only remain under state control for five years, and there have to be exit criteria that determine what happens at the end of that five years."

The district will reach that five-year mark in January, but the state only set the exit criteria last February. The criteria, based on results of the ACT Aspire test, weren't met last spring.

If the district doesn't meet exit criteria at the five-year mark, the state has to either consolidate, annex or reconstitute the district. The LRSD couldn’t feasibly be annexed or consolidated because of ongoing desegregation lawsuits in neighboring districts, so, Noland says, reconstitution is the only option. 

The only problem is, it's not exactly clear what that means for the Little Rock School District.

"A district can be taken over for fiscal distress or facilities distress. Well, reconstitution is defined in those parts and it's defined in the same way and it talks about removing the board or the superintendent," Noland said. "Well, they've already done that here in Little Rock."

The designation has shifted from academic distress to "intensive support" but the LRSD remains under level 5, the highest level.

At a meeting in September, the State Board of Education proposed a framework that would have only returned local control to higher-performing schools in the district. This, along with a surprise motion by board member Sarah Moore to strip the union for teachers and staff in the district of its collective bargaining power, led to public outcry.

Many drew comparisons to school segregation, which Little Rock Central High was infamously at the center of in 1957.

The day after thousands of people attended a candlelight vigil at Central High in support of the district, the Board met again. Board member Chad Pekron proposed a new framework, in which a nine-member local school board would be elected in November 2020, but the state and the district would work together through a Memorandum of Understanding, or MOU.

Education Secretary Key says the plan gives the district's various stakeholders a chance to know what the return to local control will look like.

"The idea of the MOU is simply so that there was transparency and full understanding and again really needing to start somewhere with that, so that all the parties could have an opportunity to review it and collaborate," Key said. 

The board voted to begin the process of setting up Personnel Policy Committees in the district, as well as to restore the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act, which gives teachers due process rights when facing termination or discipline. But the board also voted to no longer recognize the union, the Little Rock Education Association, as the sole collective bargaining entity for the district's employees.

After the meeting, questions lingered about what the agreement between the district and the state would look like, and just how much power a locally elected school board would have.

Credit Sarah Kellogg - KUAR News / KUAR
Attendees at an Oct. 10 meeting of the State Board of Education protest a previously proposed framework that would have divided the Little Rock School District into three categories.

Roughly three weeks after the state board's last meeting, the Department of Education's Division of Elementary and Secondary Education released a draft MOU. The largest point was a new community schools initiative, which has been called for by numerous education advocates in the past, and most recently by Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott, Jr.

But for many, the most concerning part of the MOU were the restrictions placed on the local school board. According to the draft, the board cannot control budgeting, hiring and firing of the superintendent, or recognize a collective bargaining agent. Noland says that goes against everything education advocates have been asking for.

"So this really frankly validates a lot of the fears that members of the community have had about what would happen once we got a locally elected board," Noland said. "Would it have authority and autonomy to operate our district, or would we still be under the thumb of the state?"  

But these restrictions all hinge on the district still receiving Level 5 intensive support. LRSD Superintendent Poore says, though the draft MOU is subject to change, greater school achievement would give the local board more autonomy.

"Even some aspects of the other parts of the MOU can change because if we get everybody up into a D grade, so to speak, then parts of the MOU fall away," Poore said. 

Secretary Key says the state would consider working with a third party to ensure new exit criteria are attainable.

"For instance, a third party that has experience or that has knowledge about the community schools model. And they could look at what's happening in a school and say, 'Look, they're on the right track, they have sustainability built in, it's going to impact in a positive way their students' success, their students' achievement.' And maybe that’s part of a set of exit criteria," Key said.  

The draft does say the state will work with the district to create new exit criteria, but Poore says it’s still unclear what that would look like.

"We know that the accountability has to change a little bit, and so the State Board has said that prior in their previous meetings that that would be discussed," Poore said. "That's probably an unknown right now, and maybe that's something that people should ask for clarity on at the next State Board meeting."  

That next board meeting is set for Nov. 14, the same day Little Rock School District teachers plan to go on strike for the first time in over 30 years. 

Daniel Breen is News Director of Little Rock Public Radio.
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