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Schools chief’s supporters talk of walkout

by Cynthia Howell | January 7, 2011 at 5:36 a.m.

— Supporters of Little Rock School District Superintendent Linda Watson shed tears and prayed out loud Thursday in an effort to persuade the School Board to reverse its Dec. 1 decision to buy out Watson’s contract, effective Jan. 15.

But the board didn’t agree to the request at a special meeting held in response to a petition from community members, prompting the parent leader of a loosely organized citizens’ group to suggest that a more public demonstration may be necessary.

“It may mean a walkout,” Anika Whitfield, a Little Rock podiatrist and a parent of a district student, said when asked what the organization’s next step might be.

“It may mean speaking to the mayor or to the governor to see what other legal rights we may have,” she said.

About 60 people attended the meeting Thursday, most of whom supported Watson.

Whitfield and seven others - including teachers, a legislator and religious leaders - asked the board to explain its 2010 decisions to not renew Watson’s contract beyond its June 30 expiration date. They also wanted an explanation of the board’s 5-2 vote for a “separation agreement” that calls for Watson to leave her job six months early at a potential maximum cost to the district of $176,278 for her salary, benefits and unused leave time.

“Most of the people that are here come in support of not just Dr. Linda Watson but the Little Rock School District,” Whitfield said. “We’ve had enough, we’ve seen enough and now we want enough of your attention that when you go back in executive session we will know we didn’t just talk to the wind. You will come back tous saying, ‘We heard you. We respect you and Dr. Watson is coming back.’”

The Rev. Clarence Thornton, a parent of five, praised Watson for her responsiveness to the community. He led an impromptu prayer asking that the board be provided wisdom and guidance and that any “hidden agendas” be exposed.

Teacher Felicia Hayes called Watson “a great fit” for the district and she teared up as she talked of Watson’s influence on her.

Board members met in executive session for about 50 minutes Thursday to talk about candidates for interim superintendent, but returned to a public session and took no action. Board President Melanie Fox said she hopes the board can fill the interim position when it meets next Thursday.

Whitfield said in an interview that a walkout by students and teachers is under serious consideration and would likely be discussed at an as-yet unscheduled community meeting.

A walkout would not only be “an attention-getter,” she said, but also part of the education process for students.

“I think the children need to have some self-advocacy,” she said. “We have a lot of high school students who are deeply moved and disturbed by what is going on in the Little Rock School District. Some of them may want to graduate with Dr. Watson as their superintendent.

“I also think there are a number of teachers who have been silent, wishing they could come out and speak,” Whitfield continued. “I think a walkout is something they would participate in. It wouldn’t be just a statement but an educational movement.”

However, Cathy Koehler, president of the Little Rock Education Association, a teacher and support-staff union, said an employee walkout has never been discussed and won’t be.

“That is not anything we would consider,” Koehler said. “It is not an option for the employees of this district.”

But Koehler, who has been outspoken in support of Watson, said she would support any decision made by her family to permit her grandson, a district pupil, to walk out of school to show support for Watson.

“But I would not encourage employees to walk out,” she said. “We have to continue to try to set that tone of collaboration whether the School Board truly wants to collaborate or not.”

Arkansas, Pages 13 on 01/07/2011

Print Headline: Schools chief’s supporters talk of walkout

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