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Little Rock School Board considers $16 million in budget cuts

Lindsay Johnson
The Little Rock School District is considering a plan to eliminate $16 million from the budget.

The Little Rock School District is considering a batch of budget cuts to keep the district afloat. At a school board meeting Thursday, Superintendent Jermall Wright said the cuts should add up to $16 million, slightly over the $15 million they need to eliminate.

Under Arkansas LEARNS, an education overhaul passed by state lawmakers last year, school districts in financial distress can be taken over by charter school companies. Meanwhile, the LRSD is facing low enrollment numbers causing them to lose money quickly.

The LRSD drafted a proposed list of cuts and discussed them at the Thursday meeting. Much of the plan involves cutting jobs. This could include 14 to18 positions in the district office, several principals, teachers and support staffers. The district estimates eliminating these positions could save $8.5 million.

The LRSD is divided into nine zones. Board member Vicki Hatter was worried that the poorer zones would suffer more than than richer ones.

“Zones 1, 2, 3, 6 and 7 are going to be the ones to truly bear the costs of these cuts,” she said, “So if there is a way to be equitable in practice and not just speech, I would welcome that.”

Hatter went on to ask Wright several questions about district salaries and benefits. Wright said he would work to ensure board members were clear about budget cuts before they happen.

“I want to make sure we all have the clear big picture,” he said.

New schedule

One proposal is to eliminate so-called “block scheduling” at middle schools, meaning students would take seven classes a day instead of taking eight classes over two days. The district estimates the schedule change could save $1 million by cutting more teachers and classes.

LRSD Chief Academic Officer Melissa Gude said a schedule involving seven classes a day is a better way to teach middle school.

“It is difficult to engage middle schoolers in a block,” she said, referring to her own work as a middle school educator. “We've heard a lot from people, particularly on the math side. This idea of coming every other day in our math curriculum specifically, our teachers have to teach two lessons a day.”

Board member Greg Adams agreed with her.

“I just remember being a student in middle school and things like band and algebra,” he said. “It would have been much more difficult if I wasn't getting them every day.”

Wright said every middle school teacher he's talked to prefers the new proposed schedule, and that he felt it fit the maturity level of middle schoolers better.

Board members say another $1 million could be cut by getting rid of “supplemental programs.”

The LRSD has already closed down several schools to accommodate a shrinking budget and lagging enrollment. Last year, the district moved students from Little Rock West High School of Innovation to Hall STEAM Magnet High School. Hatter said about 40 students transferred from West to Hall. Other schools like Wilson, Hamilton, Henderson and Booker have also shut down.

Wright said board members would continue to finalize the cuts over the next year. The district offered no comment on the situation.

Josie Lenora is the Politics/Government Reporter for Little Rock Public Radio.