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Little Rock School Board meets to discuss budget cuts

Little Rock School District
The LRSD is expecting a $15 million budget deficit. Low enrollment is one of the reasons for the expected deficit.

During Thursday’s Little Rock School Board meeting, Kelsey Bailey, chief financial officer for the LRSD, presented a plan that would help the district avoid a budget deficit.

This is part of the district's continuing efforts to cut $16 million from its budget. Under the LEARNS Act, districts that are in financial distress can be taken over by charter school companies. The plans to avoid this outcome have included changing middle school schedules, cutting hundreds of staff positions and closing schools.

The LRSD has recently closed several schools including Hamilton, Ish, Wilson, Southwest Jr. High, Henderson, Franklin, Romine, David O. Dodd, Meadowcliff and Booker. The board estimated millions of dollars in savings came from the closures.

At the meeting, the group reviewed a current plan to eliminate staff positions. They said as of Wednesday, they plan to let go or not renew the contracts of 344 teachers and staff. 100 of the lost positions came from school closures. In the presentation, board members projected being able to save nearly $16 million.

Superintendent Jermall Wright says the district is on track to meet their budget requirements, but that they may need to lay off more teachers as they continue to lose students in coming years.

Wright gave a presentation listing several things contributing to the declining enrollment. There were 500 fewer students in the district last school year, and the current school year saw enrollment drop by more than 180 students. Wright also said the district needs additional support staff and alternative learning employees.

The board is especially interested in saving Ignite! Reading, a phonics tutoring program that has been used to raise literacy rates across the district. The board listed Ignite! among supplemental programs that could potentially be cut to save money, saying it costs $5 million a year. Board members stressed the list is not final.

Wright said the district needs more resources to help students with dyslexia, estimating the needed number of intervention teachers could cost over $1.3 million.

Board member Greg Adams said he hopes they can add Ignite! Reading back into the curriculum and that the push to cut it comes with “great sadness.” Wright said they have put in for a grant to fund Ignite! for first-graders.

Ron Calcagni, a former Arkansas Razorbacks quarterback who has worked as a P.E. a teacher and coach at Pulaski Heights Middle School for 20 years, was informed his contract would not be renewed and spoke out against the lack of contract renewals during public comment.

“I’m just heartbroken about that. A lot of other teachers are not being renewed and I’m sure they feel the same way,” he said. “I’ve got a lot left in me and I want to teach.”

In an opinion by Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin, a Republican, said under the LEARNS Act, teachers are only given a hearing if they are terminated, but not for a non-contract renewal.

Nancy Rousseau's raise

By a vote of 8-0, Little Rock Central High Principal Nancy Rousseau was granted a raise she requested from the board.

This comes after George Maxey was hired to be a principal for Southwest High School. His starting salary is $170,747. Rousseau is making $137,080 after having worked in the job for 22 years.

Former LRSD Superintendent Baker Kurrus drafted a release agreement for her to get a raise from the board. The raise will mean she gets $27,126 more for the 2024-2025 school year and for the 2023-2024 she will get an ad hoc compensation of the same amount.

Board member Vicki Hatter said she was appalled that an “esteemed” employee had to “get a lawyer” to “fight” for her raise.

Wright said if any principal has a salary grievance they have the right to “have it reviewed.”

CRT lawsuit

The board gave an award to two student plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the state. Sadie Belle Reynolds and Gisele Davis both took the AP African American Studies Class at Little Rock Central High. After the class was temporarily canceled by the state, they are suing to block part of Arkansas LEARNS which bans the teaching of "critical race theory."

Hatter described the students as courageous. She praised them for their sense of “duty” and compared them to the Little Rock Nine.

“You are never ever alone,” she said to them. The gathered spectators gave a standing ovation for the two students as Hatter presented them with a pen.

Ronak Patel is a reporter for Little Rock Public Radio.
Josie Lenora is the Politics/Government Reporter for Little Rock Public Radio.
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