LRSD School Board Candidates: Leigh Ann Wilson, Zone 4
Why did you decide to run for the Little Rock School Board?
“As I got more involved with the district with my daughter starting school and realizing that we didn’t have a voice with the state board and part of that is just the way the state board is organized and those are volunteers and they have to run the decisions for the entire state. But if they’re going to be our school board then they have to be accountable to us. I found that really frustrating that I couldn’t get emails returned, that you couldn’t get a meeting with them. So I felt like I didn’t have any say in what was happening at my daughter’s school or in the district. And so I started going to state board meetings, really paying attention to community advisory board meetings and I honestly couldn’t quit talking about it at work and with my friends. And so I finally just decided you know, I’ve been involved, I was on the picket line last year trying to get local control back and I think it’s really important that we have a good board that continues to fight for full local control and maintain that, so I decided to just go for that.”
What education experience do you have?
"Since my own education, obviously I graduated high school from Gosnell High School. I earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in social work from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, but I currently don’t really have a formal role in teaching medical students and nursing students, but I definitely help and contribute when they’re in clinic and seeing patients and in the hospital. And then I’ve also has several social work students over the years where I facilitated their field placement. And then I have a third grader in the Little Rock School District."
And you kind of answered this already, but did you and or your children go to public school?
"Yes. I went to public school. Where I’m from, Blytheville Arkansas, it had one private school that was teeny teeny teeny tiny in the entire county of Mississippi, so public school was the only option. And then of course I went to a public university for college, and my daughter currently attends Forest Heights STEM Academy in the Little Rock School District."
What are your policy goals/policy points, things you want to accomplish?
"A big thing I want to accomplish is for the community to feel like they have a board who listens and cares, who are invested in students and the educators and staff of the district. I think there [has] been a lot of conflict with the state board and the takeover and of course the dismantling, or not dismantling, the no longer recognizing the LREA [Little Rock Education Association]. I think it’s really important that we work to build trust with staff and educators or parents or students in creating some stabilization. We have some major issues in our district in terms of inequity in our building and I would really like to see that improve. Forest Heights, where my daughter goes is a school that was reconstituted and made a magnet school and they put a lot of money into it to fix the building up, but we have a lot of buildings in our district that need a lot of work. They’ve been really neglected and that didn’t just happen in the five years of the state control…and so that’s one of my big things is that we improve our physical buildings. Because a lot of people want to choose private school for some of it just because Little Rock has a bad reputation and when you drive by the building, it doesn’t look nice, it doesn’t look fancy and so I think we lose students to charter and private for that reason."
How do you feel schools have fared without a school board for [six] years?
"I think [Little Rock Superintendent Michael] Poore has done a great job for the time he’s been here, but not having the school board…the [Community Advisory Board] can make a recommendation, Mr. Poore can make a recommendation and have a plan in place and then it can be flipped on a dime. So it creates a lot of chaos because we don’t really have control or final say. And so I think it leaves a lot of people on edge just because we can make all these plans, we can talk about it at our community advisory meetings, and then it can be changed without much we can do about it. So I think that is part of the frustration that parents have felt and staff have felt is that they really don’t have control and things seem to change so quickly and so last minute in this district."
How do you reintroduce the concept of the school board for an area that hasn’t had one in years?
"I think it’s really important that the board work to be as transparent as possible. That has been extra challenging with COVID-19 and not being able to meet in person and having to meet via Zoom and I don’t know when COVID restrictions and things will get better. I really think it’s important that we offer opportunities to the community just of listening sessions and engaging sessions and not just tied to when we have our community advisory meetings or what will be our school board meetings, but truly to let people know we care. People feel like they haven’t been heard. So it’s important that this new board connect with the community and really create a partnership and make them feel heard, that they’re valued."
And does it feel like you have to build trust with educators, with parents, with the community as you’re reintroducing this concept?
"Yes, I think that’s probably the biggest thing. I feel like we can’t do anything or get anything else accomplished until we do that. You know, the millage that’s going to be on the ballot is a perfect example. I’ve heard lots of people say, ‘Well I don’t want to give them money until I can see if I can trust them or not. We don’t even know who the board’s going to be, how do I know if I want them making those decisions? How do I know they won’t just squander it?’ And I think those are some valid points. We’re going to have potentially nine people who have never been on a school board and we have no idea what the environment is going to be like, what the culture is going to be like and I think that’s a valid concern. So I think our absolute priority has to be building trust and being open and transparent."
Are you worried at all that expectations will be more than what you can actually accomplish?
"I think just in our society in general we have a tendency to want result instantaneous and that’s really not something that can happen. Things take time and so hopefully people will be patient with us as we get our sea legs. I have really appreciated the district offering training. They’ve been, the last two months and then in October, they have been training to get school board members kind of up to speed on where to find things and who’s in charge of things and I think that’s been really important and helpful so we can hit the ground running as best we can in January."
Do you think that the state takeover of the Little Rock School District in 2015 was fair?
“I was not in Little Rock and very familiar with the school district in depth other than what was like on the news and hearsay. I do think it was harmful to the district. I think their extending it past the five years is, it just should not have happened and from my perspective, it seems like they didn’t do a whole lot of interventions in the district until really kind of the end, when the five years were nearing the end. And I think people, like Grassroots [Arkansas’] Dr. Anika Whitfield, students, parents, teachers, the LREA keeping the pressure on the state board is probably the only reason why we’re having this election.”
What will you do to avoid another possible state takeover?
“Hopefully we are going to be able to make sure that our finances are in order because that’s one of the reasons they used of part of the state takeover was that, I can’t remember if it was the debt or what exactly, but our finances were an issue. So I want to make sure that is nice and correct. We have failing schools, is the term they use. I don’t think the schools are failing. Obviously our reading schools could be better. There are schools and students who are not performing and those are questions that I really would like to find out from the teachers of what they think will improve that. I think a lot of the teachers were really excited about the new curriculum. They were not excited about it being so last minute, but they do think the curriculum is helping and making a difference and that’s one of those things that’s going to take time.”
So the state has put some limitations on what the school board can do and so how does that limit your ability to function as a school board?
"It makes it a little difficult just because for me coming on as a new member, it feels almost like you’re kind of a junior member. You still have to have their approval and authority even though technically our limitations are: we can’t enter any litigation without the state’s approval, we can’t hire or fire the superintendent and the other one has to deal with we cannot make personnel policy changes without the state’s approval, we cannot recognize the LREA [Little Rock Education Association] or any collective bargaining agent without the state’s approval. And so really we still have a lot of control, but I think given the history, it always kind of feels a little like ‘Well that’s what they said now, but is that going to stay or are they going to in six months add something. I hope that doesn’t happen, I see no indication of that, but I feel like in Little Rock we’re always kind of waiting for the shoe to fall so to speak.”
And how do you anticipate working with the board, how will you handle any disagreements whether it’s with board members themselves or with the community?
"I think the biggest thing is to be respectful and to realize every single person has different life experiences. They have different current experiences and a different viewpoint. One of the things that I think is the biggest challenge of being a member is, I’m not going to know everything that’s happening in the district. That’s impossible. I need the teachers, I need the parents, I need staff members, students to communicate with us. I have to have their input to make the best decisions and I think as long as everyone acts respectfully, you can have a disagreement and ask questions and why do you think the way you think? What’s making you say that? What leads to that decision? And that helps me as a person understand more about what makes you think the way you think. What makes you think we should do x instead of y and that’s really really important. I think that’s something as a social worker I’m skilled at and trained at is how to handle disagreements. And the biggest thing is, I think people, unfortunately get defensive and feel attacked and just because you don’t agree doesn’t mean they’re attacking you as a person and so I think that will be something I can hopefully help with."